The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Time to eat some crow: Months in advance, without having seen it, I had been most unkind to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I wasn’t alone in my cynicism. Disney doing Hugo? Anybody remember The Tall Guy, where struggling actor Jeff Goldblum played the lead in a ludicrous Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque musical based on The Elephant Man? A Disney Hunchback promised to be even worse.
So now I feel like a jerk, guilty of doing to Hunchback what everyone does to Quasimodo in the movie — ridiculing it out of ignorance. Yes, Disney is still too loud and show-bizzy. And yes, Hunchback can’t go more than a reel without boisterous comic relief (here it’s a trio of gargoyles, voiced by Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander, Murphy Brown‘s Charles Kimbrough, and the late Mary Wickes). And yes, the villain — despite his seething lust for the heroine — is firmly in Disney’s questionable diabolical-queer tradition in terms of his features and velvety sneers.
But still! After a serious misstep with the PC lecture Pocahontas, Disney has rediscovered the dark magic of the psyche. Hunchback, like The Lion King, resonates deeply for adults as well as for kids. There are moments of shocking darkness and obsession, which means that parents should prepare for long talks with younger children after the movie. Hunchback isn’t “too scary for kids,” as has been claimed, but it is provocative.
The basic story — the very basic story — remains the same. Quasimodo (voice by Tom Hulce), a deformed bell-ringer raised by the evil Judge Frollo (Tony Jay), falls in love with the fiery gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore). She befriends him but falls in love with the kindly, heroic soldier Phoebus (Kevin Kline). Frollo, in turn, becomes obsessed with Esmeralda; his lust for her mutates into self-denying fury.
The gifted directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, also did Beauty and the Beast, another fable of tolerance. They do for Tom Hulce what they did for Robby Benson: give weight to an actor known for callow roles. They get vivid performances from Demi Moore, who is sexier here than she ever is in the flesh, and from Kevin Kline, who delivers a pitch-perfect heroic parody.
If only they could have turned the sound down a notch. Like Beauty, Hunchback is often too shrill and clamorous to be truly lyrical. The songs (by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) are forgettable except for Judge Frollo’s twisted valentine “Hellfire,” a number that made me wonder if the parents sitting around me were regretting having brought their pre-schoolers. The show tunes and the clownish gargoyles (though Alexander is hilarious) keep disrupting the grim enchantment.
That’s Disney for you, though: Subtlety just isn’t in the Mouse’s blood. Yet ‘Hunchback,’ for all its ready-for-Broadway razzle-dazzle, is surprisingly radical. Quasimodo may not be Disney’s first physically flawed hero (Dumbo was there first), but he doesn’t win Esmeralda in a bogus happy ending, either. That is one hell of an advance for Disney. For any studio, these days.