October 24, 2021

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How Disney’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Broke Some, Not All, of the Rules

Adapting Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” into an animated musical, let alone a family film bearing the Walt Disney Presents label, was a Notre Dame-sized risk on the part of the Mouse House.

Nevertheless, we have the anomaly known as Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996). I have to admire the massive chutzpah on the part of Disney, which took a major gamble when they decided to make this after their animated top grosser, “The Lion King” (1994) and following their ambitious but only somewhat successful (artistically and monetarily) “Pocahontas” (1995).

The result feels like it came from Disney’s 1980s try-anything goldmine of left field choices, like “The Black Cauldron” and “Return to “Oz” (both 1985) and not during the carefully planned, pristine period of Arial, Belle, Aladdin and Simba.

The story of Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) the hunchback who lives in the bell tower of Notre Dame and falls in love with the earthy Esmerelda, has a painterly beauty in the animation (both hand drawn and computer generated) and some of the central characters have an unexpected depth.

Whenever the story (which is somewhat faithful to Hugo, has touches of genuinely risky moments but is mostly dictated by Disney formula) threatens to become one kind of movie (musical/ comedy or character-driven drama), it resets and heads in a different direction.

It’s like a massive ship with no one at the rudder.

To say the least, this makes for a surprising, sometimes stirring work, though there’s also an obvious problem with a movie that seems unsure of itself.

This is Disney at its most puzzling, as the film takes big swings, then draws back, afraid of the implications it raises, then tries again to push the envelope. It’s a schizoid movie, creatively at war with itself.

Yes, its powerful at times but formula touches downsize its overall effectiveness. “The Lion King” was far better at balancing darkness and light.

Nevertheless, as uneven as this is, the moments of anguish and raw human emotion that break through are stunning. I find it hard to believe that the ambitious animated musical/drama “Kingdom of the Sun” would one day be whittled down to “The Emperor’s New Groove” (2000), but this maintains the character of Judge Frollo, a minister of justice with an astonishingly nightmarish musical number.

He’s a moral void of a monster, literally dodging the flames of hell, lusting after a character vocalized by Demi Moore. You can keep your “Frozen II”- I miss Disney taking these kinds of chances.

Unlike the mild “Pocahontas” from the year before, this aims to leave teeth marks, not like “The Lion King,” but in the manner that “Bambi” is exhilarating but haunting.

Among the button-pushing elements on hand: exploring Frollo’s corrupt, religious authority figure, a baby who is nearly tossed down a well and the abusive and controlled upbringing “Quasi” endured. In the age of Disney+ and their unnecessary content warnings beforehand, there’s no way the company would make this today.

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The animation always stuns — the site of Quasi swinging down Notre Dame, to save Esmerelda from a Joan of Arc-like fate, is an amazing feat in animation.

Hulce brings such life and humanity to the title role. Kevin Kline is always wonderful, though his robust character seems like it’s out of a different movie (namely, “The Road to El Dorado”).

The Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz songs are beautiful and hit hard. Unlike the prior Disney animated movie musicals, which were in the Broadway tradition (before becoming actual Broadway musicals themselves), this often goes in an overtly operatic direction.

However, a giant misstep was tossing the gorgeous “Someday” over to All-4-One to croon over the end credits, when it should have been in the film and given to Hulce.

There are elements here that are Disney traditions, though also touches that were recycled elsewhere: Esmerelda is an Aladdin-like character, an on-the-run con artist. Quasi’s “Dad” is a don’t-ever-leave-the-house type, akin to the parental figures in “Tangled” and “Moana.”

The animal sidekicks here are as bad (in fact, even worse) than those in “Tarzan” — The gargoyles are awful. Kline’s Captain Phoebus is very Kristof-like. The subsequent Disney animated epic, “Mulan” (1998) was better at creating a workable balance for the comedy and drama.

There’s a funny bit that references the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” but it’s really a fine gag for “Aladdin” and not this movie. Otherwise, the jokes, specifically anything from gargoyles Victor, Hugo and Laverne (hardy har har), are duds.

In 2017, I got to see a rare production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the Disney musical, done as a stage show. I’ll mention some specifics, because it was a special event — this was at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center and directed by wunderkind David C. Johnston.

FAST FACT: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” earned a solid, but not spectacular $100 million at the U.S. box office in 1996.

The film’s score was intact, though the talking gargoyles and forced moments of comic relief were gone. The experience gave me a clear view of how this story can be told the right way. It was a breathtaking production, honoring not just the profound angst of Hugo’s story but illustrating how the potent material in the Disney film could have benefitted from a screenplay that didn’t aim to soften the power of the material.

The stage show removes the creative compromises and maintains the aching heart of the story. Frankly, the show broke my heart. When the lights came up and the theater began to empty, I just sat in my seat for a long time, completely drained from the experience.

While this stage version of the material admittedly is less guaranteed for widespread commercial appeal, it’s the version I prefer and hope to see resurrected down the road. If Disney can take “Mulan” and drain it of everything that was fun and lively, why not take this, one of their least-loved animated films, make it live action, extract the cornball humor that doesn’t work but maintain the emotional power, soaring music and complex themes that do?

Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see Quasi…though please, oh please, let it be the last time we see Victor, Hugo and Laverne.