Lord of the Rings

At the end of the 1939 film of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Hunchback gazes down from the bell tower of the title edifice at his beloved Esmeralda--Maureen O'Hara, who could make any man feel a bit deformed and subhuman. He's saved her life repeatedly, yet there she goes, riding off into the sunset with another man. He looks at the gargoyle next to him and sadly asks, "Why was I not made of stone like thee?"

Now Disney has seized on the idea that this question need not be merely rhetorical. To Disney's Quasimodo (voiced and sung with surprising power by Tom Hulce), the gargoyles quip back in the voices of Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough and Mary Wickes. They urge him to leave the sanctuary of the cathedral, to meet new people, to taste the pleasures of life. "After all, you aren't made of stone like us," one remarks.

The animation unit at Disney is truly the most audacious maker of movies in the world--it seems able to put anything over. If you or I walked into a movie producer's office and pitched a version of Hunchback in which the gargoyles were the Hunchback's imaginary pals, and talked and joked and sang and helped him overcome his shyness and his need for his stepfather's approval, we'd be laughed at and hauled off by security. Yet the Disney gang has forged ahead with this concept, just as it made a bumptious big-band comedy out of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and a Young Adult romance out of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid.

What's fascinating is that, somehow, Disney's loony approach to this classic material works.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the novel's English title, borne of public response to the character of Quasimodo; Hugo called it simply Notre Dame de Paris--Our Lady of Paris. This title may have a double meaning, as the central figure of Hugo's vision was less the big-hearted hunchback than the sultry Gypsy dancer Esmeralda.

She is the axis around which Hugo's wildly complex plot creaks and groans. Everything turns on how a series of men relates to her. Frollo, the black-souled, self-righteous archdeacon, is driven mad by guilt over his lust for her. Quasimodo, Frollo's adopted son, the deaf and misshapen bell ringer, repays her small kindness to him with selfless, heroic adoration. The handsome Captain Phoebus, with whom Esmeralda is stupidly infatuated, treats her with caddish indifference.

Hugo said his book was about anangke, a hard-to-define Greek term that refers to the brutal inexorability of fate. His readers, however--and the audiences of at least a half-dozen earlier film versions--responded less to the author's sense of tragic determinism and more to the grandly soul-stirring romantic melodrama of Quasimodo's unrequited love.

The film versions have, inevitably, abridged Hugo's narrative scheme and turned the yarn into a Beauty and the Beast variation--probably just what attracted the Disney lot. Disney's version vastly condenses the plot, and tidies up some potential political messes: Frollo here is no longer a deacon but a secular judge. Quasimodo isn't deaf--that wouldn't work in a musical--and Phoebus is now a square-jawed hero instead of a creep. The movie eliminates such characters as Gringoire the poet and Jehan the student entirely, while Clopin the Beggar King here is made into a sort of harlequin chorus figure.

Moreover, Disney's version makes Quasimodo--"Quasi" to his granite pals--a 20th-century-style antihero. Think Forrest Gump. He's moved less by specific, unattainable love for Esmeralda and more by a healthy need to overcome his own limitations. He's just shy and self-conscious, says the film; he needs to give others a chance to get past his looks and see his many good qualities.

This may sound like an incredibly insipid, reductive take on the story, and at times that's how it plays. Yet the film is, for all that, remarkably moving right from the start. The dazzling flashback prologue, sung by Clopin, which explains how Quasi came to live at the cathedral, is animated storytelling at its best, setting up character and theme with sweep and urgency, and the film never loses the tension, nor the pictorial beauty, of that sequence.

The songs, by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, don't have the catchy charm of those in, say, Pocahontas or Aladdin, but they're pretty and potently sung. Demi Moore, Esmeralda's speaking voice, is covered by a set of pipes named Heidi Mollenhauer when the Gypsy sings, and Broadway vets Tony Jay and Paul Kandel bring great vocal power to, respectively, Frollo and Clopin. As hokey as the gargoyles are, their antics are cute, and their presence in the film allows for other silly, cartoonish gags--like a man falling into an open manhole marked "Mon Sewer"--that pay off without violating the more genuinely dramatic sequences.

Hunchback drew some early griping by advocates for the physically challenged. Most recent Disney projects have stimulated similar protests from one group or another, sometimes understandably, as with the Native American irritation over Pocahontas. Protests against movies and TV shows seem kind of tiresome and misdirected, especially when the complaint concerns an issue of "insensitivity." But Disney has earned a special right to viewer vigilance.

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