Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Written by far too many people to list
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo

            There’s that period of Disney animated history, going from Pocahontas to Meet the Robinsons, where about every movie was hit-or-miss (with Robinsons finally starting the hit streak again).  There were some great movies (Lilo & Stitch, Emperor’s New Groove), there were some awful ones (Home on the Range), and there were some that were so uneven that it’s hard to say.  And that’s squarely where Hunchback of Notre Dame falls.
            Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is the titular hunchback, locked up in the bell tower of Notre Dame by Judge Frollo (Tony Jay), who “protects” him by keeping him away from the outside world.  When he escapes the tower for the Festival of Fools, he becomes attracted to Esmeralda (Demi Moore)…but so does the captain of the guard Phoebus (Kevin Kline) and Frollo, who decides that she’s either going to be his or die.
            OK, let’s talk about this for a moment: there is absolutely no way this movie should have a G movie.  It is almost oppressively dark, starting from Quasimodo’s mother dying on-screen in the first 10 minutes.  The movie is downright nightmarish at times, featuring Quasimodo getting tied up by a mob and a lot of execution imagery.  And then we have Hellfire, which may be the only Disney song about how much the villain wants to have sex with the love interest (seriously).  At times, this comes off less like a Disney movie and more like an independent adult-focused movie.   Not that this works against it.  It’s generally enjoyable to watch, and the focus on drama is a rather different tone for Disney.
            To the point where the comic-relief gargoyles can’t help but feel a little out of place.  There are some comic moments that work, but the gargoyles role in the movie feels forced in.  This is almost a hard realism movie, and having that one element of magic (or hallucination—it’s never really explained, and the movie doesn’t seem to care) is just weird.  Almost as weird as them singing a song about how much Esmerelda loves Quasimodo…while Paris burns and using imagery of people hanging.  The songs in general are…well, they’re constant, and there are some good ones in here.  There’s not that much that’s going to be stuck in your head (besides the aforementioned Hellfire), but the darker they get, the better they fit in with the movie.

            Hunchback of Notre Dame is definitely uneven, and rather out of place in Disney canon, but under the right circumstances, it’s an interesting and enjoyable movie.  If you’re not a fan of the sillier Disney movies, well, this is perfect for you.

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