Part of the problem is technical. The animation looks old-fashioned and even crude after breakthroughs in computer animation (Toy Story) and stop- motion (The Nightmare Before Christmas). Oh sure, crowds seen from above are miraculously convincing, fire and water effects never fall below an acceptable standard, and Quasimodo's pupils duly contract when he walks from the dark of the cathedral into the light of day. But animation has an absolute obligation to astonish, to show us things we can see nowhere else. The directors of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, go in for a lot of mimicry of live-action film language, which always seems a waste of time - arty "cutting" from a tolling bell in the belfry to a senser swinging in the nave, for instance, or making a stabbing accusatory finger artificially "out of focus".
But the main problem is the story. Disney has adapted classic books before, but those were classic children's books - Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book - and Victor Hugo's melodrama is something else again. Parents planning a family trip to the cinema are advised to prepare a plausible answer to the question: "If Frollo only wants to be friends with Esmeralda, why is he so beastly to her and why does he want to exterminate the gypsies?" The disavowed lust of a religious hypocrite may be hard to explain. There was death in The Lion King, of course (and Simba's father will play the same role for this generation of children as Bambi's mother did for earlier ones), but there wasn't a pogrom.
Much of the energy in recent Disney cartoons has come from the villains (they're like Bond films in that respect) - think of the vizier and his parrot in Aladdin or sardonic Scar and the manic hyenas in The Lion King. Frollo, an austere judge who fancies himself above temptation, can't deliver a great deal in this line. Nor is there anything gleeful or Dionysiac in the heroes - though Captain Phoebus has a nice dry manner, as well as a heart and a conscience (he's also the first Disney hero with facial hair), and Quasimodo does eventually start swinging about on ropes like a gothic Tarzan.
The comedy element of the film is a lot less assured than in earlier efforts - silly touches like Phoebus's horse being called Achilles, so he can say, "Achilles! Heel!". When it comes to a hole in the street with a sign above it saying "Mon Sewer" we may feel like we're back in a Pepe Le Pew short. The wild energy of Robin Williams's genie in Aladdin is present, only diluted in the form of the three gargoyles who are Quasimodo's friends in his bell tower. They have the same privileges of irreverence and anachronism. When Quasimodo is crowned king on the Feast of Fools, they whoop like the audience of a game show.
It has been clear for some time that Disney animations are the last hiding place for that discredited thing, the show tune. The background music of The Hunchback of Notre Dame may have cod-medieval touches - plainsong, a Kyrie eleison or two, Carmina Burana-style pulsations for action scenes - but the idiom of the songs (by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) is firmly rooted in Broadway. What the songs chiefly provide is a dynamic of pulling out the stops. They deliver escalating ersatz pizzazz that ends with a big climax and an echoing silence, full of implied applause.
There's only one remotely show-stopping number, "A Guy Like You", sung by the gargoyles to Quasimodo as they tried to talk up his romantic prospect. This may be the first time in history that Adonis has been rhymed with "croissant is", but the visual style is modelled on the genie's songs in Aladdin. At least the quick-change routines - gargoyles as barbers, as gamblers, as torch singers - for once fully justify the use of cartoon. There's a definite shortage of romantic numbers, unless you count "God Help the Outcasts", sung by the gypsy girl Esmeralda to a statue of the Madonna, a sort of power ballad of the dispossessed, which has already been covered by Bette Midler.
Esmeralda is a green-eyed lovely with Demi Moore's throaty voice, who asks at one point: "What do they have against people who are different, anyway?" Which is a bit rich coming from someone cut from the exact same cloth as Jasmin (in Aladdin) and Pocahontas, all tiny waist and a ton of hair. In the world according to Disney, every woman is Rapunzel.
It's a tradition in recent Disney films that the characters are always having therapy moments or assessing the world in pop-psychological terms. Hardly five minutes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame have passed before we learn that "life is not a spectator sport". Esmeralda ventures, "You're a surprising person, Quasimodo" - but then how many hunchbacks does she know? Near the end of the film, when Quasimodo is fettered in the tower, forced to watch as a torch is set to Esmeralda's pyre, a gargoyle suggests, "These chains aren't what's really holding you back, Quasimodo." When gargoyles start talking psycho-babble, it's time to call a halt.
Roy E Disney, vice-chairman of the Walt Disney Company, sums up the moral of the tale as "what you are on the inside is a lot more important than what you look like on the outside". Fine and dandy. But then why doesn't Esmeralda end up as Mrs Quasimodo? Perhaps that's the real reason the film feels so lacklustre. Disney has made it before, with more magic and more wish fulfilment. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is only a Beauty and the Beast in which the monster doesn't get the girl.
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