The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

D: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
S: Voices of Tom Hulce, Kevin Kline, Demi Moore

There are moments when Disney's animated feature version of the Victor Hugo novel steps into a world hithertofore unseen in a film from this stable. There are scenes of dark passion, terror and injustice which honour the material upon which they are based and send genuine chills down the spine of even hardened film viewers. But there is also hamfisted comic relief, a 'sassy' knowingness and the inevitable distortion for the purposes of the 'happy ending' which limits the heights to which the film can go and eventually bring the film down to the level of mere convention.

A deformed gypsy child is raised by a heartless autocrat in the bell tower of Notre Dame. When he begins to discover the world outside, particularly that of a rebellious young gypsy dancer and an upright soldier, his master's anger threatens to engulf not only him, but the entire city of Paris. A confrontation between gypsies and overlords long brewing eventually explodes in a cataclysm of racial intolerance whose lessons for contemporary audiences are far from lost.

At times much darker and more frightening than any Disney film to date, it is doubtful that The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be rated as top notch family entertainment. But the insertion of a woeful comic chorus in the form of three animated gargoyles who only come to life for Quasimodo does little other than skew the balance of the film. These and other misjudgements add up, and despite moments of tremendous power and beauty, it becomes a pedantic moral lesson with jokes as the tale is robbed of its ability to reach the audience of its own accord.

Which is not to say that the film is not worth seeing. The quality of animation is as good as ever, with some dazzling computer-aided sequences involving the architecture of the Cathedral and a rich palette of colours. The songs are mostly good, backed by an effective musical score. The sly wit of Howard Ashman has been missed for some time now, but lyricist Stephen Schwartz is a welcome change from Tim Rice's popular but syrupy penmanship in the last few outings. It is as polished and well made a film as any Disney has made in the past decade. It certainly knocks spots off the cowardly Pocahontas. But its unevenness keeps it from reaching the level of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

Though it had the potential to exceed all these and still boasts moments which do, it is only in these isolated moments of tension and drama that the film excels. From the opening where Quasimodo's mother is murdered by Frollo to the hunchback's flight to the top of the Cathedral with the unconscious Esmerelda in tow, the film is occasionally breathtaking. There is a sustained fifteen or twenty minute segment two thirds of the way in which takes the audience through the tortured mind of the villain, wracked with lust for the woman he supposedly hates, and charts the moral transformation of the Captain of the Guard during the eviction of the family from their cottage. The climax of the film is also exhilarating, with the fiery assault on the Cathedral rendered with a marvellous sense of drama and danger. But generally, the film cuts alarmingly from drama to comedy as if between two different films, and the comedy itself is relatively weak and obvious. The result is an uncomfortable mixture which children may find occasionally too intense and which adults will find frustrating.

Those eager either to decry the Hollywoodisation of classic literature or to hit out at the straw target of Disney cynicism will find ample material in the reasoning behind this hedging of bets. But for its flashes of power and majesty, it is still a film worth seeing. Those patient and tolerant enough to blot out the dreck will find that the overall works just well enough to provide entertainment, if unfortunately little more. If the recent crop of Disney films have restored the studio's reputation for high quality animation and rejuvenated the industry, it is still unable to match the timeless power of the films made in the fertile 1940s. The Hunchback of Notre Dame offered an opportunity, and sometimes seems to reach towards it, but yet again it has been squandered in favour of something safer.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.