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.

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.

Rated

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