The Hunchback of Notre Dame
1996, G, 95 min. Directed by Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise. Voices by Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Tony Jay, Kevin Kline, Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, Mary Wickes, Paul Kandel, Heidi Mollenhauer.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 21, 1996
Paradoxically, The Hunchback of Notre Dame may illustrate both the best and worst of what we've come to associate with the Disney product over the years. The glory and the goop known as Disney are equally represented in their new, fully animated rendition of another classic of Western civilization. On the face of things, the movie is amazing, another Disney coup of cartooning magic. The pageantry and hurly-burly of the class-conscious 15th century is well re-created by the Disney animation teams. The majesty and playfulness of Notre Dame's Gothic architecture provide a feast for the eyes, a sight no less amazing when carved in celluloid than in stone. And were this a live-action retelling of Hunchback, the movie would be trumpeting its dazzling manipulation of "a cast of thousands." The numerous crowd scenes are, indeed, technical dazzlers. Yet, these visual innovations are not the things that our littlest connoisseurs of animation generally notice and appreciate. In pleasing that audience, Hunchback fails to deliver. More suitable as an early-adolescent cheaters' guide to great literature, the story is bound to pass over the heads of its younger viewers; concepts like church "sanctuary" and feudal social structure are necessary to understand it. Then too, we have the familiar Disney family distortion of the absent mother and the tyrannical guardian -- always a discomfort to the youngest and most vulnerable viewers. As for the current political correctness of "hunchbacks" and the narrative accuracy of a cute and cuddly Quasimodo, the debates will probably continue until the Disney machine provides us with newer examples, just as these issues supplant the debates about the appropriateness of Pocahontas as a native babe. Some children are certain to be frightened by the dark machinations of the story line (as some howling at the screening I attended seemed to bear out). The musical score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz leaves little impression on the memory and is not likely to have the kids replaying the songs ad nauseam. And though "cute and cuddly" may seem a questionable approach for depicting the character of Quasimodo, credit must be given to the animators for managing to do just that. Quasimodo is, indeed, adorable, as are the wise-cracking gargoyles and the spunky Esmerelda, who bears a remarkable likeness to Demi Moore, the actress who speaks her lines. In fact, much credit for whatever effectiveness the movie does have should be directed toward the actors whose vocalizations bring the characters to life. As Quasimodo, Tom Hulce helps us hear the universal anguish of a boy suffering his identity as an "outsider"; Kevin Kline brings irony, wit, and an unapologetic hamminess to his role of Phoebus, the warrior who decides to disobey his commander's orders. The Hunchback of Notre Dame ultimately misses its target, as it's more likely to find acceptance with an older-than-average Disney crowd. As for the Southern Baptist interpretation of the movie? Well, that's a whole other story.