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Cranky reminds you that he never makes comparisons to source material (which in this case is the classic novel by Victor Hugo; usually required reading by the time one reaches high school). I'm also an animation fiend, which means I'm a lot more attentive, appreciative and critical of this form. Now you know where I'm coming from.
OK, here's the problem: Hunchback of Notre Dame is a Disney film. That means you've probably seen the TV commercials with three goofy gargoyles, or the spots for Burger King toys. It means you may have thought to yourself "Oh God, They've Messed up Another Classic!"
Put the thought out of your mind.
Though you may notice the similarities to other successful Disney films -- the extensive musical introduction to set up the story a la Aladdin, or the trio of buffoons as comic relief a la The Lion King -- The Hunchback of Notre Dame takes Disney animation a giant leap into a heretofore unexplored dimension: reality.
Notre Dame is an exquisite piece of filmmaking.
The original story has not been (totally) "Disney-fied." The production team responsible for the Oscar(s)-nominated Beauty and the Beast has filled Notre Dame full of nasty stuff. If you have the littlest kidlets, you may not want to have to explain things like racism and discrimination to them. But if they are of that learning age, Notre Dame is probably not a bad way to break 'em in on the subjects. A friend of mine who saw a preview in Los Angeles reported that even the smallest children seemed to have "no problem" with the unpleasant themes. So, let's get to it . . .
As the "King of the Gypsies," Clopin, sings the introduction, we are introduced to Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce), the physically deformed baby whose mother is murdered by the racist Judge Frollo on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral. As penance, Frollo (Tony Jay) is made to raise the lad as his own, but orders the boy confined to the cathedral.
Frollo is the kind of repressed religious nut that makes Cranky shiver. Twenty years later, in one of the creepiest sequences of the film, Frollo sings to the boy "You are Deformed . . ." (and Quasi returns "I am Deformed . . .") Frollo continues: "You are Ugly . . . Out there they'll revile you as a monster." Frollo teaches Quasi that the world outside the walls of the cathedral is a place even more hideous than the deformities which are quite apparent on the young man.
Quasimodo is so emotionally crushed by his upbringing that his only joy lies in the carving of detailed wood miniatures. His only friends are imaginary, three abandoned stone gargoyles who come to life only in his presence. These characters, Victor, Hugo and Laverne, act not only as comic relief, they are Quasi's sole means of emotional support. They are the voice that we all have inside, that urges us on. In this case, to get his butt out of the cathedral.
Which Quasi does in a sequence that runs the emotional gamut from amusing to horrifying, called "The Festival of Fools." In it he is befriended by Esmeralda (Demi Moore), a beggar Gypsy dancer, herself reviled by the crowd. She is kind to the "monster." Her beauty inflames the passions of Frollo. And she confuses the heck out of Captain of the Guards, Phoebus (Kevin Kline) who is ordered to arrest her, but finds himself also smitten.
The theme of the film is simple: "Don't judge a book by its cover."
The songs in Hunchback of Notre Dame are so tightly woven into the fabric of the story that Cranky had no problem with them, as I have had with other Disney movies. Here's the interesting part: taken alone, I didn't care much for a lot of the soundtrack . But when combined with the visuals, the Menken/Schwartz tunes make an extraordinary impact. Their emotional power is almost physically palpable; Quasimodo sings of wanting just "One Day" to be normal, for which he would gladly spend the rest of his life confined to the Cathedral. Frollo, in "Hellfire," sings of his inner turmoil when filled with sinful, lustful feelings that he cannot suppress. Esmeralda sings of a world where tolerance is the norm, while being sneered at by the worshipers inside the cathedral ("God Help the Outcasts").
Which brings me to the animation. Notre Dame continues the practice of combining traditional animation with Computer Generated Images (CGI). It is a seamless integration that provides many layers of detail. You see individual movements among a crowd of thousands dancing in the street, as CGI confetti rains down. More remarkable and beautiful, to me, was the animation of dust floating in the rays of sunlight pouring through the stained glass windows of Notre Dame. It is a beautiful and delicate image. A fitting contrast to the dark palette of colors used in the film.
Were Cranky able to set his own price for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he would have paid . . .
This is the closest Disney animation has ever come to producing an opera for the screen. If you don't like opera, think of a good Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway show. If that doesn't work, go see it anyway. The Hunchback of Notre Dame proves that the nomination for Beauty and the Beast was no fluke. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is magnificent.
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