Off the Shelf…Walt Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame I & II’

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is a very different type of Disney film and further a bold step for Walt Disney Feature Animation. To some Hunchback can be considered a classic as well as a paradigm shift that marks a divergent tone in series of features previously found in the Disney catalog. For years Disney films were filled with a mix of fanciful characters and/or led solely by an assortment of cute and fuzzy (sometimes feathered) animals. But when, save for The Lion King, have we got a misunderstood male character that was actually a male (read: human, not animal)? The answer, we think, is never. Anyway this story, about hunchback with a heart of gold is a story about someone finding his purpose, and gaining real friendship along the way. It’s a sweeping story that like the underlying theme in Aladdin, is about finding a diamond in the rough.

Disney’s interpretation of the Victor Hugo novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame has lots going for it, in fact, more than people probably give it credit. A deformed orphan Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) has been raised his whole life by Frollo, the Minister of Justice. A cruel man, he has confined Quasimodo to the bell tower. But this misunderstood child grows up in the Notre Dame Cathedral and despite his captivity has a free-spirited and cheery outlook. Frollo controls Quasi with fear and lies and confines him to his lofty prison lest he be seen by those outside the church and ruled a monster.

Like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and other stories about an unassuming hero, Quasimodo‘s first steps outside of his comfort zone show him just how much the outside world has to offer. Moreover this world it is not as dangerous as he’s been tricked into believing. Outside the confines of the cathedral he meets Esmeralda (Demi Moore) who has a kind heart and sees Quasi as a person and not a monster. But when Esmeralda is in danger, Phoebus (Kevin Kline) Frollo’s captain of the guard, and Quasiomodo try to save her but doing only fans the fires of the rebellion brewing in the Paris streets.

More and more Disney gets high marks for bringing in recognizable voice talent. Yet it’s only something that has become apparent in the last 20 years or so. Could you name more than 1 or 2 A-listers in The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid or Aladdin? Casting A-list talent for the main characters is common place these days but it’s a trick to get people in the door using household names. Sometimes they are names that will look good on the poster (which gets people to take a chance since on a film) but not because they are the right fit for the character. Hard to argue when it comes to money and ROI, but the likes of Kevin Kline, Demi Moore and company mostly work in getting the audience invested in the characters a little quicker.

Trying to capture lighting in a bottle for a second time co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast) again brought on the duo of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz to lend their efforts to this the studio’s 34th animated film. The result is a series of sweeping songs that give the drab story its soul and charm. The same however cannot be said to the direct-to-video sequel which is disappointingly packaged in this Blu-Ray edition. As with Aladdin, Mulan and pretty much every pointless DTV title this is, in short, a misfire. It’s unnecessary to say the least and this is one title that deserves to be locked away in a bell tower. However should you be inclined, or morbidly curious, to fire this up it’s easily forgettable despite it being a bit of a chore to make it through all 68 minutes.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, like pretty much every property after The Lion King, is hit and miss but that’s not really a fair assessment. It’s got quite a lot going for it and distracting gargoyles aside it’s a fine film powered by, among other elements, the animation. The studio reached an almost unmatchable pinnacle of success in the late 90s and like we just mentioned in our review of Mulan, anything that doesn’t meet or exceed the bar set by The Lion King is unfortunately going to be forgotten in some audiences’ eyes. Still Hunchback tries its best and the result is a slightly emotional story that is elevated by the gorgeous animation and even more wonderful score.

G-S-T RULING:

There’s lots to like even if those moments never come close to making us love them. But for what it is, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a feast for the eyes and is even better when compared to its unwarranted and embarrassing direct-to-video sequel. Boy is that a whip to get through and even the returning voice talent can’t help give that effort one bit of life. But if Quasi is able to shoulder the ridicule and persecution with a smile and bright spirit, so too can he with this unnecessarily tacked on second-rate sequel that has been unceremoniously paired with this stellar Blu-Ray release. Allow this edition to find sanctuary on your video shelves and enjoy to your heart’s content…just don’t let the sequel come out of the shadows of the Blu-Ray case very often.