Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) is loosely based on the 1831 literary masterwork by French author Victor Hugo. In tone and theme, the central narrative of an undesirable – Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) - sent forth into the ruthless humanity of an inhumane world is reminiscent of the studio’s Pinocchio (1940). However, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise – responsible for the overwhelming critical success of Beauty and the Beast (1991) – seem to have mislaid their light touch this time around.
Because 'Hunchback' is not a fairytale. The original source material does not provide for the usual Disney-fied translation. Nevertheless, the film is perhaps the most technically proficient of the new golden age movies – its animation detailed and refined, its backgrounds nearing, though not surpassing, the intricate level of artistry on Sleeping Beauty (1959). 620 artists in Paris contributed nearly a million individual sheets of animation paper to the project, while the enormous crowd sequences were achieved through a new and sophisticated use of CGI digital technologies.
The tale begins with Quasimodo, a misshapen outcast confined to the bell towers of Notre Dame by his mercilessly cruel master, Frollo (Tony Jay). Quasi is befriend by a trio of mischievous stone gargoyles; Hugo (Jason Alexander), Victor (Charles Kimbrough) and Laverne (Mary Wickes) who encourage him to partake in Topsy-Turvy Day – a festival where the socially inept and disfigured are made an acceptable spectacle.
Unfortunately for Quasi, he is found out and chained to a torture wheel in front of the cathedral for the amusement of the crowd under Frollo’s watchful eye. The gypsy girl, Esmeralda (speaking Demi Moore/singing Heidi Mollenhauer) takes pity on Quasi, freeing him against Frollo’s direct orders and thereby forcing her to seek sanctuary in Notre Dame in order to avoid persecution for breaking the law. Frollo assigns his Captain of the Guard, Phoebus (Kevin Kline) to surround the cathedral and arrest Esmeralda when she tries to escape. Though Phoebus’ heart is clearly not in his work, he complies with Frollo’s command. But Quasi knows of a secret corridor and affords Esmeralda her chance to escape.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a far more richly and intensely wrought character study than any of the critics of the day has given it credit. Its ballads – ‘God Help The Outcast’ and ‘Heaven’s Light’ carry a weight and depth of meaning previously not heard in an animated movie and the animation itself is first rate – excelling beyond anything seen in the latter golden age resurrection of new studio classics.
Yet, the film failed to find its audience, perhaps due in large part to the pre-sold expectation that what audiences were going to see was another romp through familiarity and not a drastic departure into darkness rather than light. In the final analysis, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is deserving of more than a second glance.
Disney DVD has not afforded Hunchback the respect it deserves. The single disc incarnation displays a picture element that is relatively sharp but not quite as refined as other 2-disc remastering efforts. Colors are bold and rich. Occasionally, age related artifacts appear but do not distract. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, yet oddly not as aggressive in its sonic spread. Extras include a superfluous ‘making of’ documentary obviously geared toward tots and hosted by Jason Alexander – who generally makes a quiet nuisance of himself. Trivia and games and the film’s original theatrical trailer are also included.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)