Lord of the Rings

It wasn't hard to be suspicious of the old--pre-Little Mermaid--Disney, because the company had always seen itself as, and managed to convince others that it was, an arbiter of what constituted wholesomeness. Disney was wrong as often as it was right, but the question remained, who the heck are these people, and who died and made them Magic Kings?

What to make of Disney since the mid-'80s has been more complicated, because even though it's a more powerful media barony than ever, its sense of values is puzzling. The Disney that (through Miramax) wouldn't release the dirty-talking You So Crazy (even with an NC-17 rating) but didn't mind releasing the insanely violent The Crow almost simultaneously is the same Disney that bravely released Priest, and that is now bravely offering employment benefits to the partners of its gay and lesbian employees (which, for my money, is the most compelling proof Disney has ever shown that it champions "family values").

In the same way, there's a lot to like, beyond the obviously magnificent artistry that Disney has always commanded, about the Disney animated musicals since the late '80s--and a lot to be suspicious of, too. They're mixtures of lovely visuals, fine music, good intentions and, at times, jaw-dropping carelessness, like the streak of subliminal fascism in The Lion King, or the whiff of retro sexism that hangs in almost all its films, the near-flawless Beauty and the Beast excepted.

Under those films--and around them, in the merchandising--one can also catch a creepy little whiff of calculation, as if a desire for moderate-liberal values and a superficial political correctness had been carefully identified and staked out as a promising broad-based consumer market.

Which, of course, it has, and which does not, of course, imply that the artists behind Disney product are not people of goodwill. But the films are products, and even though names appear in the credits, they aren't really the products of any individual, idiosyncratic artistic vision (as the Warner Bros. cartoons were). They're committee-made, somehow anonymous artworks, and they're tough to miss on the cultural landscape. In this way--if no other!--they're comparable to Gothic cathedrals.

Part of the pleasure of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is that, despite the puzzling complaint of the disabled-people's lobby, or the dumb fretting that it's too scary or too sexually frank, the film is less potentially controversial than any recent Disney film. There's no obvious sexism, the religious can of worms is left unopened, and if a literary masterpiece has been bowdlerized or trivialized, well, the French-Lit Grad Students' lobby isn't known for its clout.

And at least most of the unforgettable highlights from Hugo are preserved: Esmeralda's mercy to the pilloried Quasi, the grimace contest at the Festival of Fools, the near hanging at the truands "Court of Miracles," Quasi rescuing Esmeralda from execution, and his superhuman defense of the besieged cathedral--we get them all, rearranged or softened, perhaps, but rousing all the same. And, even stripped of ecclesiastical status, Frollo is a figure of real, frightening wickedness.

Yes, Disney has put mouse ears on the gargoyles, and turned the Court of Miracles into a small world after all. But Hugo has his way in the end. At this film's heart is a real Quasimodo, not a quasi-Quasimodo.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise; with the voices of Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Kevin Kline, Tony Jay, Paul Kandel, Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, Mary Wickes, Bill Fagerbakke, David Ogden Stiers and Heidi Mollenhauer.


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