Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is loosely based on Victor Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris and it tends to get a lot of flack from die-hard fans of the book. They complain about Disney toning down and removing the darkest elements of the story and for giving it a feel-good happy ending. I must be in the minority then because I really love this film! In fact I would go so far as to call it one of my favourite Disney films. I did like this film as a child but I've grown to appreciate it a lot more now I'm older and can recognise the darkness in it. OK this film is nowhere near as dark as Victor Hugo's book but it's still extremely dark for a Disney film! I'm still shocked that they managed to get past the censors with a U rating. This is mainly due to their interpretation of Frollo's character. He's just so freakin' evil! He's a great character and you could make a very strong argument for him being the most evil Disney villain ever. He kills Quasimodo's mother, tries to drown a baby, has people tortured, smells Esmeralda's hair, sings a song about how he can't decide whether he wants to rape or kill her (Hellfire), sentences an innocent woman to death, attempts to bargain the woman's freedom in exchange for sex, sets Paris on fire, persecutes gypsies and tries to decapitate Esmeralda at the end.... in a Disney film! Awesome! Frollo is a badass, evil villain and you can really tell that Tony Jay had a great time voicing him. You may be interested to know that Tony Jay had a very small role in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. He did the voicing for the asylum keeper Monsieur D'Arque. Disney liked his voice so much that they asked him to come back for The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The villain is probably the most memorable character in this film but that's not to say that the other characters in this film aren't great. Quasimodo is a great hero and is voiced by Tom Hulce, who played Mozart in the film Amadeus. Hulce brings so much kindness and innocence to the character and makes Quasimodo someone that you can really root for and get behind. Plus he's actually a really good singer. He sings with so much heart and passion and his version of Out There is one of the highlights of the film for me. Phoebus is voiced by Kevin Kline, who's hilarious and has great comic timing even in animated form. Phoebus's character isn't anything like the sleazy scumbag character of the book, which I'd complain about if he wasn't so funny and downright cool. Esmeralda is voiced by Demi Moore. Surprisingly even she's quite good although she doesn't get to do the character's singing.

The music in this film is often seen to be a weak entry for Disney and for Alan Menken but I actually love most of the film's songs - especially Hellfire, Out There and the film's opening song The Bells of Notre Dame. They're wonderful. I love Stephen Schwartz's lyrics too and I especially love that the songs make use of a choir. It helps to give the songs a really epic feel. The only song I'm not so keen on in the film is the Gargoyles' song A Guy Like You. It's clearly supposed to be a big, fun comedy song like "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid or "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast - but it's just not that good or funny. It doesn't help that I don't like the Gargoyles anyway but I'll get to that in a moment. I also love the animation in this film which is just stunning. It looks spectacular and the animators do a superb job in recreating medieval Paris. Notre Dame in particular looks incredible. Before I get on to my only real issue with the film here are my favourite songs from the film:


Out There

The Bells of Notre Dame

The only thing that lets this film down in my eyes are the talking, singing gargoyles. I really dislike them! It's obvious that Disney only put them in there to provide some comic relief and to keep the younger children entertained but that wasn't necessary in my opinion and the Gargoyles aren't even funny. Even as a kid I didn't find them entertaining. However, as irritating as the Gargoyles are I'd be willing to give Disney some credit for putting them in there if they were purely imaginary. That's actually implied at first. For example: there's a scene where we see the Gargoyles are moving around and performing their big musical number with Quasimodo but then Esmeralda walks in and we see that the gargoyles are stone and are standing still. This suggests that this musical number was all in Quasimodo's head. That's a brilliant idea! The Gargoyles being the product of Quasimodo's loneliness and imagination is a great but tragic way to get your comic relief in. But in the end the Gargoyles turn out to be real. They fight back against the guards when Notre Dame is attacked, they help Quasimodo save the day, and there's no way that Quasimodo could have imagined them. I think this film would have been pretty much perfect if Disney had decided "You know what? Screw the kids, let's just get rid of these damn things". Oh well.

Despite the Gargoyles I do really love this film though. It's a beautiful film and is one of Disney's most underrated. For sheer guts it's also one of their bravest films too. I'm amazed that Disney managed to pull it off as well as they did. I'm glad that this film is starting to get more credit and recognition because it really deserves it and I don't think it was a huge hit when it first came out.

Rating: 4.5/5

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