Talking gargoyles. A sexy gypsy. A disfigured bell ringer. This is a Disney movie?
I like Disney as much as the next guy (i.e., a construction worker from the Bronx). When I was a kid I used to love to watch Bambi prance across the woods, or the seven dwarfs whistle while they worked. As I matured, I grew less and less tolerant of singing animals and doe-eyed heroines. I thought that my Disney days had ended. Then, like a lightning bolt from nowhere came the Victor Hugo inspired The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Finally, a Disney movie that had overtly darker themes, a hero I could love (how can you not like the cartoon version of Danny DeVito, only prettier?), and not one single singing animated animal. Personally, I was surprised that this film even received a G rating with all the talk of hellfire and damnation going around. Disney has finally released The Hunchback Of Notre Dame on DVD, so get our your masks out and join the festival of fun!
Facts of the Case
Pity poor Quasimodo (Tom Hulce, Parenthood). Here is a guy who has the luck of the damned. In a flashback, we learn that Quasimodo's gypsy mother attempted safe passage into Paris when she was caught by the vile Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), a man who sees the gypsies as the enemy. After slaying the mother and stealing the baby, Frollo sees that the child is a disfigured monster and proceeds to throw it down a well. Before he can finish his mission, he's caught by an arch deacon and told that the only way he can avoid eternal damnation is by raising the child as his own. Hesitantly, he sends the baby to live in the Notre Dame bell tower. There Quasi has grown into a strong bell ringer with a heart of gold, spending his days discussing life's foibles with his talking gargoyle friends Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander), and Laverne (Mary Wickes). When the annual Festival of Fools comes around, Quasi desires nothing more than to be apart of the cheering crowd. Donning a semi-disguise (let's face it, Quasi is a Halloween costume), he blends into the crowd—until he's caught and unmasked (so to speak), and egged in front of his abusive master Frollo. Saved by a gypsy woman (Demi Moore, Ghost) who infuriates both Frollo's anger and passion, Esmeralda seeks sanctuary in the Notre Dame church while being subsequently pursued by the ruthless yet caring Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline, The Ice Storm). Everything will come to a head when Quasimodo learns that he worth more than the sum of his parts and that love lies deeper than a person's skin.
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is probably one of my favorite animated Disney movies. It may not seem like it now, but when The Hunchback Of Notre Dame came out it was shocking how "adult" it all seemed. I can't image taking my kids to see this movie and having to explain to them what it means to be in "eternal damnation." Parents practically need a study guide while watching this film with their kids…oh, say THE BIBLE. But that's why I really liked this movie—it had a more mature nature running through its veins. By all means The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is still a movie for young children. The theme of this film (it's not what's on the outside but the inside that counts) is something that every kid needs to learn. I think that all of us at one point in our lives have known a Quasimodo; someone who may not be pretty by societies standards, but in their heart they are a supermodel.
By 1996, Disney had started getting into the groove of mixing hand drawn cartoons with then- state-of-the-art CGI graphics (nowhere is this more noticeable than in Beauty and the Beast). The Hunchback Of Notre Dame includes a few of these scenes, as well as some beautifully rendered paintings and backgrounds. One of the creepiest scenes was also the most awe inspiring: underneath the Paris streets is a maze of catacombs filled with skeletons and brick walls. While most of the animated Disney movies often look the same to my eye, I was very impressed with how gothic this film's visuals were. Kids may not appreciate it, but their parents sure will.
Some of the ideas in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame are fairly ambitious for an animated kids flick. Religious acceptance and perversion in the church are both touched upon in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame's script. They may only by on the periphery of the story, but that's still a big deal in a movie from the people who brought us The Love Bug. The musical numbers are all very good (considering I usually don't like songs in cartoons), and the actor's voices all work excellently with their characters. Demi Moore and Kevin Kline both do fine work with their respective identities, and Tom Hulce brings humanity and warmth to the gentle Quasimodo. Tony Jay as the evil Frollo is one of the best villains in recent memory. And alright, so there's a cute little goat…the good news is he doesn't speak and is featured in only a few scenes.
I highly recommend The Hunchback Of Notre Dame to both fans of animation and children looking for a Disney movie with something different. In the last few years, we've seen the release of Hercules and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Let's hope that this trend continues with Disney. I'm not against their lighter fare, but something more mature is a good way of balancing the scales for the rest of the movie going public.
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Disney has done an excellent job at making sure this transfer looks exceptionally clean and clear of any artifacts or imperfections. Featuring both cel-drawn animation and GGI work, I was more than impressed with how good this image looked. The colors all appear very vivid and bright with the black levels even and well saturated. While the occasional piece of dirt of grain shows up, it's very rare and never hinders the viewer's enjoyment of the film.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, French, and Spanish, as well as DTS Surround in English. I was happy with both of these tracks; Disney has put forth considerable effort to make them both discrete, lively and bombastic. There are some excellent examples of directional effects in both the Dolby 5.1 and DTS mixes, and each soundtrack is clear of any excessive hiss or distortion. To my ears neither of these mixes are worth more than the other—they should both make fans with home theater systems very excited. Also included on this disc are English captions.
While not quite as extensive as their other Disney DVDs, this first-ever DVD edition of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame includes some very well produced supplements. The first extra feature is a commentary track by producer Gary Hahn and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. I really enjoyed listening to this track, as it is simultaneously humorous and informative (now why couldn't all my college courses have been like that?). All three participants have a lot to say on the creative techniques used in the movie, the voice-over cast and what it was like bringing Victor Hugo's classic book to the sliver screen (animation-wise, that is). Fans of this movie should have a ball with this track.
Even more entertaining than the commentary is the nearly half-hour long "The Making Of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" featurette. Hosted by Jason Alexander ("Hugo") and featuring interviews with actors Demi Moore (I could listen to her voice alllllll day long), Tom Hulce, Kevin Kline, Tony Jay and Alexander, directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, producer Don Hahn and more, this is a very funny look at the making of this Disney classic. There is plenty of production footage of the creative team working on the animation and story, as well as a dispelled myth about Disney's use of computers (like it matters if they use them a lot or not—as long as the film looks good, who cares). Overall, this is a fairly through and goofy look behind the curtains at the Mouse House.
Finally there is a multi-language reel to the song "Guy Like You" which features the tune dubbed in various languages, a few sneak peeks at some upcoming Disney DVDs and movies, a pointless "Sing Along" that's strictly for the kids, and a fairly entertaining sound game that lets the viewer take a scene and shuffle around the sound effects.
One of my personal favorites, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is a movie that should please every age range under the sun. It's got a great story, some funny characters, good music, and a villain with one of the best voices ever.
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is free to go! Sanctuary! Sanctuary!
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Scales of Justice
• "The Making Of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame"
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