Judge Daryl Loomis always looked forward to his middle school scoliosis tests.
Why was I not made of stone like thee?
In 1831, Victor Hugo published his seminal work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of the most enduringly popular and adapted novels ever written. It was put onto the stage almost immediately and, as early as 1905, was already up on the screen in the form of Esmeralda. A staggering number of movies, musicals, plays, and even ballets have been made from it and, in 1997, Turner Network Television decided to join the party with their own version of the story; surprisingly, it's not half bad.
It's January 6, 1482, the Feast of Fools in Paris, and the peasants are set to find the ugliest face in town and elect him or her the King of Fools. The cathedral's bell-ringer, Quasimodo (Mandy Patinkin, The Princess Bride), suddenly emerges and he's a sight. Hunched over and horribly deformed, the crown immediately goes to him. But who to lay it on his head if not Esmeralda (Salma Hayek, Desperado), the most beautiful gypsy dancer anyone has laid eyes on. This includes Dom Frollo (Richard Harris, This Sporting Life), the Archdeacon, who spies her sensual dance from the cathedral tower and is immediately tortured by his lust. Thus, he begins scheming to rid Esmeralda from his life, but her kindness and beauty have also stolen the heart of Quasimodo, who will stop at nothing to protect her.
The Hunchback is far from the best adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame you're going to find, but for a television movie, it's actually kind of praise-worthy. It was shot in Hungary and the Czech Republic, so has a definite old-world atmosphere. Writer John Fasano (Another 48 Hrs.) takes a serious tone with his adaptation, which contrasts nicely with Disney's The Hunchback Of Notre Dame musical, which came out the year before. Where that focused almost strictly on the impossible romance, The Hunchback has a more historical perspective and makes a big deal out of France's struggle to emerge from the dark ages. The printing press, then, becomes a character of its own, as much Dom Frollo's nemesis as any human in the story. The romance stuff is certainly in play, as well; this is definitely the old melodrama people apparently can't get enough of, but it's far more downplayed than in most versions.
The front-line stars, though, were why viewers turned to TNT in the first place. The three performances are very good. Salma Hayek was an emergent star and plays Esmeralda with a lot of heart. Mandy Patinkin, under a mountain of practical makeup, delivers a subtly excellent performance that is clearly derived from the old Lon Chaney silent. And Richard Harris is fantastic as the self-flagellating, tortured priest, chewing the scenery like only his imposing figure could.
The supporting performances, however, are not very good and bring The Hunchback back to its made-for-cable territory. Plus, the direction by Peter Medak (The Changeling) is slow and occasionally awkward. The story moves along a little too slowly and the writing itself features too many TV-movie tropes to take it as seriously as it clearly sees itself. For its time and for the small screen, the production is well above average, but there are far more skilled productions out there. I can see why people might have tuned in on that Sunday night in 1997, but on DVD, I'd rather watch the Lon Chaney or Charles Laughton movies any day of the week.
The Hunchback comes to DVD via the Warner Archives on-demand collection. Overall, it's a subpar disc, but that's what you mostly get from them, so it's no surprise. The 1.33:1 image looks like a straight tape transfer, with no attempt to restore the image at all. That means tracking problems and a ton of digital noise. It's not unwatchable, but it is distracting. The stereo sound sounds fine, though, pretty much how one would expect a late '90s TV stereo mix to fare. There's no noise and the dialog sounds perfectly clear. The only extra is a trailer for the VHS release.
As far as television movies go, The Hunchback is pretty good. That said, it's still a TV production and feels like it; there are way better versions of Hugo's novel and, unless you want to see Salma Hayek do her gypsy dance, I can't recommend it very strongly.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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