Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Hunchback of Notre Dame


Certainly the darkest of all the Disney features, and one of the very best. When I say dark, I mean the subject matter, not the look of the film, which explodes with color. We can see the continuing evolution of CGI, which is in use a great deal here in the backgrounds and the camera moves. The cathedral is beautifully rendered, and so are the amazing celebrations of the musical numbers in the streets. All through the movie there is the theme of fire, which had always been difficult to animate but now could be gloriously real—in fact, a heightened level of “real”—when done by the new computers that were just becoming available. There is a density, and a depth, that no previous film had achieved. All the voice cast is good, from Tom Hulce as Quasimodo to Tony Jay as the bad guy, Frollo, to Kevin Kline as the rather wry hero, Phoebus. And for once I heartily concur with the decision to cast a star, Demi Moore, as Esmeralda. Her voice is deep and sexy, and this gypsy girl is by far the sexiest of the Disney females. (I don’t count the villainesses, many of whom are very sexy.)
I had some resistance at first to the obligatory comic sidekicks being stone gargoyles, hopping around on their flat bases. I wondered about alternatives. They’re in a belfry, right? Why not some comic bats as Quasi’s friends? Then I realized they were doing a Calvin and Hobbes thing; the gargoyles were figments of a lonely man’s imagination, coming alive only when no one else was around.
No one should be surprised that the French raised a howl That’s what they do best, isn’t it? “Disney changed the ending!” Well, duh. For one thing, Disney always changes stuff, most often the endings. You know how the book ends, don’t you? Esmeralda is hanged, and Quasimodo runs away with her corpse and starves himself to death. Yep, that should go down well with the under-10 crowd which, let’s face it, is still the base audience for a Disney animation. It can certainly be argued that Disney never should have tackled this story at all, but I’d prefer a story like this to something more innocent. And it did strike me that, “happy ending” or not, Quasimodo didn’t get the girl he loved. We can tell all the stories we want about how it’s not your external appearance but what’s inside that counts, but it seems nobody is ready for the hideous man getting the beautiful girl. Will we ever be ready for that? I wonder.
I have to end here with a little protest on Esmeralda’s behalf, though she would probably laugh it off, free spirit that she is. I’ve spoken before of the eight (now nine, with Tiana) Disney Princesses, a little-girl dress-up costume franchise that must bring in billions for the company. They got all the way to #6, Jasmine, before they had a brown-skinned princess. And though, technically, these girls must actually be princesses, they often fudge and include Mulan to sell to Asian girls and Alice because … well, because girls like to wear her little blue dress. Hell, Tinkerbell is sometimes included on the list of princesses. So what’s the deal with Esmeralda? Why not include her? The costumes are terrific, and you can dance and shake a tambourine and tell fortunes. Is there a little anti-gypsy prejudice happening here, Disney people? And by the way, where is the Latina? When do we get a Spanish-speaking princess? Isn’t it about time?