Friday, May 15, 2020

Green Phoenix - Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame Review

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/9d/Hunchbackposter.jpg
In the latter half of the 1990s, the Walt Disney Company's animation department had just passed the zenith of its power. Fresh off the heels of a string of monumental successes with films like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, Disney executives were absolutely certain that Disney animation could do no wrong, even in spite of the politics going-on behind the scenes, and began pushing heavily on their next big animation projects.

The Disney Renaissance had to continue, right?

First there was an adaptation of the story of Pocahontas, the Native American woman whose association with the Jamestown Colony had reached the annals of American legend which was released in 1995. It had to be good. This was the film that everyone wanted to be apart of, not The Lion King.

Reviews for the film were...lackluster at best. People criticized the appropriation of Native culture and the animation, which looked far too different from the last Disney outing featuring animated humans (Aladdin). The film made money, but for the first time, Disney executives realized that success wasn't a guarantee. Success was riding on their next big project.

So Disney pulled all the stops on their adaptation of Victor Hugo's most famous story after Les Misérables. They got the directing duo behind one of their biggest animated success The Lion King, they got Alan Menken on music, they got some of the best voice actors in the business.

1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame was definitely going to be a hit...right?

***
  • Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
  • Produced by Walt Disney Pictures
  • MPAA Rating: PG
  • Running Time: 91 Minutes

***

SUMMARY

Based on the landmark 1831 novel by Victor Hugo, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the story of Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of the Parisian cathedral of Notre Dame. Though ostracized as a monster by the people of Paris and all but imprisoned by his master, the cold and calculating Judge Claude Frollo, Quasimodo longs to live among his fellow people and to be accepted by them, in spite of his deformity.

When the annual Feast of Fools arrives, Quasimodo takes it as his chance to spend at least one day where he might be accepted. But an incident with the crowd results in Quasimodo being rescued by the beautiful Gypsy woman Esmeralda. As Gypsy's are not tolerated under Frollo's regime, Esmeralda identifies with the hunchback and the two strike up a friendship.

But when Esmeralda's beauty catches the eye of not only the Captain of the Guard, the kindly Phoebus, but the lustful obsession of Judge Frollo, it will paint a target not only on Esmeralda's back, but on all of the Gypsy's and even Paris itself.

This three-way feud for the heart of Esmeralda leads to a nail-biting climax atop Notre Dame, where Quasimodo will have to discover what truly distinguishes a monster from a man.

***

REVIEW

While not as much of a financial success as their past ventures, not even making as much as Pocahontas did upon its release, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was lauded by many critics and audience-goers upon its release. A reputation that has since only grow over the decades, with myself included.

I think it is no hyperbole to say that The Hunchback of Notre Dame easily ranks among my favorite animated films of all time. In fact, I once made a Top 8 Favorite Animated Films video several years back where The Hunchback of Notre Dame made the list (ranking Number 2). Actually, I've already reviewed this movie before.

But that review came out nearly half a decade ago, when I was still in College and learning my craft. I've grown so much as a writer and a reviewer since then, though watching the old reviews has made me nostalgic for making videos again. Has my opinion on the movie changed at all?

In truth, I think I might actually like this film even more now than I did back then. While I continue to maintain that the film has its fair share of problems, the thematic complexity of the film is singular among the Disney pantheon and absolutely worth watching whenever you get the chance.

VISUALS - 9/10

The Gospel According to Quasimodo – Christ Episcopal Church
The fact that this window is a real thing is incredible to me.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out in the latter years of the Disney Renaissance and its animation is indicative of the style that would quickly become Disney's archetypal design aesthetics. The film masterfully mixes sharp edges with soft curves in each characters to masterfully evoke from image alone their narrative relevance. The harsh and domineering Frollo is composed almost entirely of straight and lines and sharp edges, representing his unwavering and unflinching self-righteousness.

To contrast, Quasimodo is comprised almost entirely of curves, lacking and straight lines, giving him a very soft and kind appearance; whilst at the same time, highlighting his deformity and distinguishing him as something different from all the other characters. Phoebus and Esmeralda are much more normal in their appearance, mixing straight lines and curves to evoke both confidence and beauty respectively. It is the kind of subtle story-telling in character design that a great animator can bring that audiences understand without truly recognizing and I love how well it is done here.

The character design is one thing, but where I think Hunchback really shines is in the backgrounds and setting. Everything about this movie just feels ginormous. From the towering and bone-chilling heights of Notre Dame as Quasimodo swings among the pillars and gargoyles to the massive crowds that seem to boggle the mind. Hunchback's existence during the waning years of the Disney Renaissance enabled those crowds to be created through the utilization of computer animation, allowing hundreds of identical characters to be created in the background, which would be cost-prohibitive in hand-drawn animation. The technology was very new at the time and, if one looks close enough, it hasn't aged all that well. But that really is a nitpick of nitpicks if I am totally honest with you.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a beautifully animated film. With its sweeping landscapes and visually stunning character designs, this film could truly stand as a magnum opus of Disney animation. I think it may actually be the best of Disney hand-drawn animation and, given Disney's treatment of hand-drawn as of late, a title that may never be at risk again.

SOUNDTRACK - 10/10

In my original review, I went into a lot of detail with regards to the quality of the soundtrack and my opinion has only sweetened with age. The soundtrack was written predominantly by Alan Menken, who had participated in crafting some of Disney's finest musical compositions alongside the late Howard Ashman, with assistance from Stephen Schwartz, who would go on to write the music for  the hit Broadway musical Wicked. As such, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has what one might consider the most blueblood of musical pedigrees and it really shows, as absolutely every musical aspect of this film is a banger and exceptionally epic.

30 Day Disney Challenge | Day 12-favorite villain song - Hellfire ...
A FAMILY PICTURE!
From "The Bells of Notre Dame" which could easily compete with The Lion King for which Disney movie has the greatest opening, to the subtle and nuanced pathos of "God Help the Outcasts", The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a musical masterpiece.

Picking a favorite piece, it would easily have to go to "Hellfire", Frollo's twisted counterpart to angelic song "Heaven's Light". This song has become infamous online as one of Disney's darkest moments and for very good reason. The piece is chilling in its portrayal of the crippling effects of obsession and entitlement on one's morality, showing how someone like Frollo, who is ostensibly an element of law and order (albeit self-righteous and self-corrupted), caves under the force his own possessiveness and self-righteousness to believe that if Esmeralda can't love him, she shouldn't live at all. It's chilling and a bit of an unnerving portrayal of abusive and obsessive love that is, unfortunately, all too real in this day and age. It is a haunting example of just how far "children's media" can go through subtext and innuendo.

Now while I do stand by the statement that every single song in this movie is absolutely amazing, there is one song that is unfortunately ill-suited for this movie in many, many ways. That being the light-hearted and comedic song by the comic-relief gargoyles, "A Guy Like You". On the surface, the song is a joyous and goofy piece about a guy getting motivated by his friends to confess his feelings to a girl in spite of his own self-confidence issues. A worthwhile intention for a song and the beat is catchy and seeks to lighten the mood after a particular heavy sequence and montage of events.

No the issue with "A Guy Like You" does not stem from its quality, but its placement within this version of the movie. The song occurs not ten minutes after the iron-gripped pathos of "Hellfire" and takes place over a backdrop of Paris in flames, contributing greatly to the film's unfortunate moments of tonal whiplash. That's to say nothing of the songs constant attempts to mention Quasimodo's appearance, which seems to act in counter to the entire theme and point of the film.

But these issues stem less from the song's quality and more it effect on the story in general, so I will not take points off the soundtrack for it; as the rest of the soundtrack more than makes up for one amazing song placed in an unfortunate position in the movie. This soundtrack is easily among Disney's finest and is a must listen to, though you very likely already have been listening to it as you read this article.

CHARACTERS - 8/10

The characters of The Hunchback of Notre Dame have long since become legendary among Disney fans. Frollo alone often tops most if not all Disney villains list and could probably give this category its high ranking on his own. And it would be well deserved, as Frollo is a truly haunting character, owed to a brilliant performance by Tony Jay. A perfect mix of self-righteous and egomanical, Frollo's subtle transformation from a cruel despot to obsessed psychotic is something not often seen in so-called "children content" and really elevates The Hunchback of Notre Dame into more than just simple popcorn entertainment.

But Frollo is only one of this film's brilliant characters. Quasimodo is absolutely loveable and, despite the fact that he is supposed to be hidious in appearance, the Disney animation kind of makes him adorable. But even that aspect ultimately works in making Quasimodo much more sympathetic to the audience. In older versions of this story, Quasimodo's deformity was used to ostracize him from the audience just as much as from the rest of the characters. Disney changed that and all for the better, as it was actually watching Quasimodo as a child that helped me to learn to accept people for how they act, not what they look like.

Then we have the romantic couple of the film, Phoebus and Esmeralda. These two are just amazing, with some great, if brief, chemistry between them. I'm really glad that the film managed to give all three of the main characters a happy ending, as these versions of the characters deserve it. Esmeralda is a sheer force of will throughout Hunchback, refusing to accept any condition on her life that she herself did not choose. She is ardent defender of justice and mercy, standing for the values that Frollo espouses through words alone. This film, in many ways, just as much Quasimodo's story as it is the fight between the values of Esmeralda and Frollo. And Phoebus adds some much needed comedy and good-natured honesty to the cast. He starts as a knight in shining armor hired by Frollo essentially as a pretty face for his administration, but as Frollo's madness begins to hurt the people of Paris, combined with Phoebus' attraction to Esmeralda, causes the Captain of the Guard to turn against his boss. It also doesn't hurt that Phoebus and Quasimodo have the absolute best chemistry, coming off as best buddies almost instantaneously.

Gargoyles: Gettin' out of the Gutter | Gargoyles disney
Three "Stoned" Idiots
But the final character worth touching upon is, in many ways, the most complicated. The Cathedral of Notre Dame itself. Playing as both a backdrop and, through the gargoyles, comic relief, the Cathedral becomes a force in and of itself, representative of both a sanctuary and a prison. Through the gargoyles, Quasimodo has his only friends that enable his kindness and warmth towards humanity. And during the final battle, Frollo's final fight essentially causes the Cathedral to combat him alongside Quasimodo. A stretch perhaps? But I think it is a beautiful explanation for the strange personalities behind the gargoyles, because those gargoyles are kind of annoying. Laverne and Victor aren't terrible, acting quite subtly and actually having the mic drop line of the film.


But Hugo? Jason Alexander somehow managed to chew animated scenery with his character. I'm not a big fan, as you can tell by my criticism of the narrative impact of "A Guy Like You". But that is only a single character that I dislike in a fairly large cast, which I think speaks volumes as to the strentgh of the characters on average. Sure, the gargoyles contribute to a lot of tonal whiplash, but that doesn't make Frollo any less frightening or villainous, or Quasimodo any less sympathetic. Those qualities stand resolute and ensure that The Hunchback of Notre Dame ranks high in this category.

STORY - 7/10

Victor Hugo's original novel is an incredibly dark story. Ending with the death of nearly every character, sometimes in truly gruesome ways, Disney was always going to have a difficult time balancing out the grim countenance of the original novel with the entertainment expected in a Disney film. And while the film was controversial in its time for being too dark for a Disney movie and too bright for a Victor Hugo adaptation, I think the benefit of hindsight and age has done wonders for The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

For the most part, The Hunchback of Notre Dame stands as a very dark portrayal of prejudice and hatred and how quickly these values can corrupt and destroy us. How easily darker impulses can allow us to lose ourselves, and how important sticking to what we know is right versus what we are told is right is. And for the most part, the film commits to that tone and the necessary narrative beats, creating a uniquely dark Disney film. References to religious persecution and political corruption, the nature of evil, and lust are discussed at length throughout the novel with all the maturity of a classic dramatic piece. It really is a thrill to watch so much of Victor Hugo's intentions and thematic desires be expressed in the spirit of the screen, even if the content itself has been Disney-fied for mass consumption.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame Movie Review | Movie Reviews Simbasible
One of my absolute favorite endings.


But there are times where the Disney translation...fumbles, for lack of a better term. And it can be best exemplified by those damn gargoyles. Don't get me wrong, sometimes they really work and fit the early film quite well. In addition, Laverne has the "Oh Shit!" line that essentially kicks off the entire third act. It's just that whenever things get super serious, the film will occasionally take a complete detour and stop to watch the gargoyle Hugo make a fart joke, or Victor get his head stuck in a jar. In a light part of the movie, its not so bad, but it happens during dark moments too. And while the gargoyles aren't the only individuals guilty of this behavior in the film, they are definitely the most noticeable and representative of Disney's apparent terror at telling a truly adult animated story.

So that is going to take some major points off, but the moments of occasional tonal whiplash aside, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is still an incredible adaptation of Victor Hugo's most famous literary masterpiece. The film manages, for the most part, to capture the spirit and message of the book, whilst still maintaining a generally family-friendly attitude. It doesn't always keep that balance perfect, but the result has been a Disney Renaissance classic that helps to cover difficult subjects of prejudice and acceptance, which is very important in this day and age especially, while still being accessible and, above all things, fun.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favorite animated films of all time. It just seems to get better with every passing year and every new viewing and, based upon reactions on the internet, it seems that I am not alone in this perspective. The stunning visuals, jaw-dropping soundtrack, and wonderfully complex story, even with its occasional instances of tonal whiplash, make The Hunchback of Notre Dame among the finest of the Disney Renaissance films, which only adds to the tragedy that this film, in many ways, represents the end of an era.

After Hunchback's release, Disney would struggle to capture the same success as its earlier Renaissance films, as the fall of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg officially killed the era following the release of Tarzan in 1999. I've heard rumors of Disney thinking of making a live-action adaptation of Hunchback, but I actually think that it is perhaps better to leave this film as what it is, the last hurrah of Disney's finest hour.

Next week, we will go back to take a look at another anime. This time, a simpler anime from my past reviews that I have grown immensely fond of watching when I just want to relax and enjoy others eating some tasty food.


VISUALS
  • 9/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 10/10
CHARACTERS
  • 8/10
STORY
  • 7/10

 FINAL SCORE - 8.5/10

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