The Hunchback of Notre Dame

on June 21, 1996 by Christine James
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   "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" as an animated musical? On paper, it sounds as ludicrous and misguided as the parody production of "Elephant!," an unwittingly tasteless musical version of the Elephant Man's life story, seen in the 1989 satire "The Tall Guy." But Disney manages to work magic once again, taking Victor Hugo's tragic novel (and its classic film adaptations) as a base for a compassionate and ultimately uplifting tale of heroism and acceptance. Tom Hulce is the voice of Quasimodo, the disfigured bellringer of Paris' famed cathedral, Notre Dame. For fear of the fate of his immortal soul, an evil magistrate, Frollo (Tony Jay), reluctantly raised Quasimodo since infancy, in penance for having killed the boy's mother. But Frollo kept Quasimodo locked in Notre Dame's bell tower for his entire life, telling the Hunchback it was for his own good, as people would think him to be a monster.
   Despite mistreatment, Quasimodo had always believed Frollo was his protector and only friend. When he disobeys Frollo and tentatively ventures out of Notre Dame to enjoy the annual Festival of Fools, the townspeople do in fact heartlessly abuse poor Quasimodo. But one woman--the beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmerelda (Demi Moore)--stands up for Quasimodo, drawing the ire of Frollo, who orders her arrest. Claiming sanctuary in the church, Esmerelda (who is much more outspoken in this incarnation) soon meets up again with Notre Dame's notorious permanent resident, and the two become friends. Quasimodo begins to believe for once in his life that someone might love him--but it turns out the good-hearted captain of the guards, the handsome Phoebus (Kevin Kline), also has fallen for the fiery beauty. The three must team up to save the Gypsies of Paris, whom Frollo wants to eradicate--while trying to save their own lives at the same time.
   A trio of wisecracking but emotionally supportive stone gargoyles (Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough and Mary Wickes), who come to life only in Quasimodo's presence, provide the vital comic relief in an otherwise harrowing storyline. A cantankerous goat and well-trained horse round out the requisite menagerie of animal sidekicks. The film is the embodiment of political correctness, to positive rather than didactic effect: issues such as racism, sexual harassment and other forms of oppression are tackled, and children (and who knows--maybe even some adults) are shown the error of judging by appearance. While no new ground is broken in animation (Esmerelda's seductive dance is surprisingly poorly rendered, failing to capture the realistic movement Disney is usually lauded for), the characters, costumes and backdrops are well-drawn and eye-catchingly colorful. The story moves briskly along to a euphemized but satisfying climax, with the gargoyles helping in inventively humorous and tension-easing ways to keep the baddies at bay. True, the heart-rending "Why was I not made of stone like thee" of Charles Laughton's Quasimodo had to turn into `You two kids go and have fun,' but we don't want to send the kiddies home weeping about cruel humanity and trading in their Flintstones vitamins for Prozac. Voiced by Tom Hulce, Demi Moore , Kevin Kline, Tony Jay, Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough and Mary Wickes. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Written by Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker & Noni White and Jonathan Roberts. Produced by Don Hahn. A Buena Vista release. Animated. Rated G. Running time: 88 min
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