FILM
When the number you find yourself humming after seeing a Disney musical cartoon is entitled "Hellfire", you know something pretty rum must be afoot. And when you've watched that song being rendered by a pinched, puritanical tyrant inwardly fretted - much like Shakespeare's Angelo - by lascivious cravings for the flesh of the very woman he is hunting to death, and tormented by lurid, appalling visions of rank upon rank of faceless red-cowled monks summoning him towards damnation, you start to wonder if someone spiked your coffee. But no: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (U), directed by the Beauty and the Beast duo, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, really can be that weird and hallucinatory and doomy. Some of it is as gorgeous as anything the company has produced, but as an entertainment for young children it's on a par with a nice trip to the town morgue. Even adults might want to cower behind their fingers now and then.

The cutesying-up of source material which is Disney's cardinal vice - and main selling-point - certainly hasn't knocked the stuffing out of old Quasimodo. The untouched title alone is enough to indicate its basic integrity, and there is little scope for marketing tie-ins a la Lion King or Pocahontas. (What could they have offered: polystyrene stick-on humps? Bladder-on-a-sticks? "Lunchpacks of Notre Dame" at hamburger chains?) There's certainly some decent humour, mostly courtesy of a trio of fast-talking gargoyles, and some jolly non-talking animals including a horse called Achilles (whose owner tells him to "Heel!") and a sprightly young goat (who occasions the remark "I didn't know you had a kid"), as well as a fair portion of ye olde sugarie sentimente.

None of this, though, makes the tone much lighter for long, and even the obligatory cheery ending doesn't altogether wipe away residual images of catacombs lined with skeletons and knee-deep in sewage, or of the skies over Paris flushed with the smoke and flame of houses burnt out in what amounts to a pogrom. Judge Frollo, the villain (voiced, one is not all that startled to note, by a British actor, Tony Jay - we're a nation of rotters) and reluctant foster-father to Quasimodo, is, in classic style, horrified at the idea that someone, somewhere might be having a good time. Above all, he's obsessed with driving the gypsies out of Paris, and illustrates his domestic policies by lifting one of the cathedral's stones to reveal the ants that teem beneath it, then invert- ing the stone to crush them. Any- one who has seen Nazi propaganda films with scuttling rats will shudder more readily than their children.

Frollo's wicked crusade is challenged by Esmeralda, a green-eyed gypsy who is also the sexiest, most stacked cartoon heroine this side of Jessica Rabbit; when Demi Moore's voice comes out of her lips, you realise why the face rings a bell. Good-hearted as well as a major medieval babe, Esmeralda befriends Quasimodo when he ventures down from his tower for the Feast of Fools and is ill-treated by the mob. Understandably Frollo develops a morbid erotic craving for her; more wholesome amorous appetites are kindled in the breast of Frollo's new Captain of the Guard, Phoebus (manly tones courtesy of Kevin Kline), who soon rebels against his sick boss. The rest you probably know.

Only infantile viewers will miss the insinuations which are being peddled here: Frollo is a fascistic, Brit-accented monster because he is sex- and life-hating; Quasimodo and Esmeralda share an oppression motivated merely by their difference from the majority; the hunchback's inner beauty matters more than his surface ugliness. There are many worse life lessons to set before children, although the portrayal of Quasimodo is just a shade too heavily therapised for the good of the drama: he should surely have a touch of the terrifying in his soul as well as his body.

On the physical side, few complaints. While the animated Quasimodo may not be as arrestingly ghastly as either Laughton or Lon Chaney Sr, he's hardly a Prom King - from some angles, he almost looks as grotesque as Barney from The Simpsons - and the bulging eye and simian lope could well come to haunt many a childish nightmare. The main act of prettifying is in Quasimodo's voice: Tom Hulce speaks his lines in an ingratiating croon that's not always well suited to the action - it ups the character's doubtless justifiable self-pity to an irritating degree.

Musically, the film is fairly humdrum, and apart from the spook "Hellfire", and perhaps the overture "Bells of Notre Dame" sung by Clopin, a strolling player (Paul Kandel), there's not a lot to whistle or chuckle at in Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's songs. But Hunchback is one of the musicals from which it feels right to come away whistling the scenery: the film- makers aren't just blathering when they say that the fabric of Notre Dame - gratifyingly pronounced "dahm" rather than "daym" - is one of the main characters, and it's a rich character, ponderous and intricate, not to say witty (one of many sharp visual jokes has a row of stone saints finger- popping in unison). Again and again, the camera pulls back to dwarf a character in the awesome perspective of a vault, or a tower, or a pool of light cast by a stained-glass window, and each time it does so you gape at the poetry with which the spectacle has been drawn. Such moments are glorious, though few tinies will thrill to them; at any rate, that's my hunch.

This week's Jim Carrey comedy, directed by Ben Stiller, is called The Cable Guy (12), and it harnesses his usual bastard-son-of-Jerry-Lewis mugging and bouncing gimmick to an unexpectedly nasty Fatal Attraction- style plot. Carrey plays a warped loner who needs friendship, and coerces it from people (especially our hero, the hapless Matthew Broderick) by a campaign of attrition which begins with treats - free cable hook-ups - and escalates via undue intimacy to kidnapping and attempted homicide. Unless you belong to the legions who find every last drop of Carrey's overacting irresistible, the joke starts to outlive its novelty fairly soon; on the credit side, there are some refreshing cameos from Eric Roberts and Janeane Garofalo, and a new trick you can do with chicken skin.

This week's Woody Harrelson comedy, Kingpin (12), is, as you would expect of the team (Peter and Bobby Farrelly) who brought us Dumb and Dumber, not nearly so subtle. Its mainspring is your standard sports-uplift yarn about a former bowling champion on the skids (Woody Harrelson) who coaches an Amish goofball (Randy Quaid, and yes, there are lots of Witness spoofs) to take part in a championship match against some creep (the sublimely sordid Bill Murray) who cost him his right hand years before. At almost two hours, it's hopelessly over-long, and any self-respecting adult ought to be repelled by its unabashed idiocy and execrable taste. Be warned, however: I was not the only one caught giggling at some of it.

Feast of July (15) opens with a woman (Embeth Davidtz) fighting her way across a bleak landscape, scuttling into a rude rock shelter and then giving birth, amid gouts of dark blood and agonising shrieks to the heavens, to a stillborn baby. But it's not all quite so cheerful. Apparently derived from a novel by HE Bates, though seeming more like a muffled rumour of a Thomas Hardy tale of woe, it's all about a wronged wench who moves in on a decent proletarian family, with predictably hilarious consequences: murder, hanging, stuff like that. None of the fine actors, not even Ben Chaplin, keeps it from looking like a poor television film.

Any film containing explicit scenes of circus performers should be approached with caution, and Bigas Luna's The Tit and the Moon (18) does little to discredit that rule. A harmless enough little fantasy about a nine-year- old boy with a mammary fixation, it suggests that the Catalan word for "self-indulgent" lacks any pejorative associations. There remains, then, far and away the most entertaining new live-action release: The Celluloid Closet (15), a straight, so to speak, clips-and-chat documentary about the American cinema's portrayal of homosexuality, short on pathos, long on wit (Gore Vidal on Ben Hur is a hoot, though Charlton Heston doesn't think so), and especially acute on the way "minority" viewers have found their pleasures in the dark. As one of the few movie documentaries to concede that audiences can be collaborators in the history of the seventh art, it more than deserves a good audience of its own.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10

Comments