One of the most strikingly beautiful of all Disney films, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME hearkens back to the studio's glory days of the 1950s with its meticulously detailed artistry. But it pushes the envelope of the modern "Broadway" Disney films, touching on surprisingly adult subjects for a children's film.
Throughout the film, there is a tug of war between two opposing ideas - making a faithful version of Victor Hugo's classic novel versus making a lovable, tuneful Disney film, and this dilemma is never quite resolved. On the "lovable Disney film" side, we have Quasimodo, who is treated, for the most part, as this film's Ariel, the character who is stuck in one world and pines to be part of another, as he explains in the song "Out There" which is a close cousin to THE LITTLE MERMAID's "Part of Your World". Unlike the Quasimodo of the novel and several films, this Quasimodo is not deaf and, although ugly, not hideously so. His only friends are three wacky Gargoyles that come to life and speak to him, which gives the film its requisite allotment of cute sidekicks. Esmerelda, the desirous gypsy girl, is in the mold of Belle, a plucky young thing who stands up for herself in a time and place when women just didn't do such things. She has her own cute sidekick in the form of a goat. Phoebos the Knight is the Handsome Prince, though thankfully given more personality than the usual Disney hunk. Hugo's story is simplified, with many characters eliminated and whole scenes missing or toned down (Quasimodo is not whipped but rather pelted with vegetables). And, of course, anybody and everybody breaks into a jaunty showtune at the drop of a hat.
All this is not necessarily bad, considering how many amazing films Disney made using the same formula. The difference is that in the past, Disney films were most often based on short fairy tales and rarely full-length novels, and Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris is not exactly children's literature. The above-mentioned elements often clash with what could have been a breathtaking straight adaptation of the novel, one that would have rivaled (some argue that it does anyway). The film does not shy away from such stuff as Esmerelda praying to a statue of The Virgin Mary, the evil Frollo's lust for the gypsy girl, Phoebus and Quasimodo nearly being hanged in the "Court of Miracles", and even, in a religious context, characters using the words "hell" and "damn". The sweeping camera movements and computer-enhanced special effects are spectacular for an animated feature, and scenes such as Paris burning, Quasimodo rescuing Esmerelda from execution, or the final battle between the townspeople and Frollo's soldiers are so gripping that you may resent when they cut away to the cartoonish antics of the three gargoyles Victor, Hugo and Laverne.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is still a fine film, one of the best of the post-Walt era and on par with such modern classics as THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE LION KING. But with a little less emphasis on Disney and a little more on Victor Hugo, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME could have been the greatest Disney film ever. - JB
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME 2 (2002 - Direct to Video)
OH, WHAT A PAL WAS MARY
There is some wonderful voice talent in this film, including Tom Hulce (Quasimodo), Demi Moore (Esmerelda), Kevin Kline (Phoebus), Tony Jay (Frollo), Charles Kimbrough (Victor) and Jason Alexander (Hugo). Veteran character actress Mary Wickes supplied the voice of the gargoyle Laverne in what was to be her last movie. A talented comedienne, she had an astounding seven-decade career in films, on television and the stage. Some of the more memorable and popular films she appeared in: The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), (1942), White Christmas (1954), Postcards from the Edge (1990), Sister Act and Sister Act 2 (1992 and 1993) and Little Women (1994). Her television appearances ranged from I Love Lucy in the 1950s to Punky Brewster in the 1980s with at least one stop on what seems like every show in between. She was a regular cast member on The Father Dowling Mysteries (1989-1991).