Opens: June 21, 1996 | Rated: G
Song and dance numbers were probably not what Victor Hugo had in mind.
Nevertheless, Disney's punched-up, sometimes carefree, animated version of his "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" comes cut with comic relief and the standard upbeat, if not quite toe-tapping, tunes from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, the studio's stewards of song.
These light-hearted moments are needed to bring a kiddie element to what is at its heart a depressing, downtrodden story of loneliness and prejudice.
The dark nature of "Hunchback" is not entirely lost in the Disneyization of the story, it's just interrupted often by giddy gargoyles who come to life in the bell tower and make smart remarks when the going gets tough.
Since this is a kids' movie, "Hunch" has been boiled down to its core elements to keep it simple.
Voiced by Tom Hulce (known best for "Amadeus"), physically deformed Notre Dame bell-ringer Quasimodo (called "Quasi" for the sake of cutsey marketing) lives a lonely life in the famous Paris church's bell tower.
Convinced by Frollo (Tony Jay), an oppressive, abusive priest, that he is safe from an uncaring world only inside his tower sanctuary, Quasi spends his time longing to go out into the town. His only consolation is his friendship with three lively stone gargoyles, voiced by Jason Alexander ("Seinfeld"), Charles Kimbrough ("Murphy Brown") and Mary Wickes ("Sister Act").
On the day of the city's Festival of Fools, the gargoyles talk Quasi into joining the revelry, where he discovers the unpredictable nature of society when he is crowned the festival's King of Fools and moments later attacked by the crowd because of his deformities.
The script is terribly weak in this scene, and parents can expect a barrage of "whys" from their kids as the attack is entirely unmotivated and comes from the same people that were carrying Quasi on their shoulders moments before.
In this melee he also discovers kindness in the form of Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore), a gypsy girl who saves him from the ugly crowd.
Moore is appropriately cast, as her character is quite a departure from Disney's standard female lead. Esmeralda is a cleavage baring, pole-dancing tease -- the cartoon equivalent of the hooker with the heart of gold, toned way down.
Quasimodo is instantly taken with her, and they become fast friends when he helps her escape Frollo's guards, who have been ordered to arrest her for helping the hunchback (evil Frollo was content watching his charge be accosted).
The honest and dashing captain of the guard, Phoebus (Kevin Kline, who comes across as enjoying himself thoroughly), is quite smitten with Esmeralda as well and eventually, with Quasimodo's help, leads the gypsies in a revolt against Frollo.
The story is very sketchy because so much of the script is focused on balancing Quasi's happy-go-lucky personality against his depressing life.
No more than two minutes are spent on establishing the romance between Phoebus and Esmeralda (and even less time on Quasi's resulting dejection). Other plot elements jump out of nowhere, such as Frollo's sudden lustful interest in Esmeralda after having held her in contempt for most of the movie.
Disney's animated films seem to be slowly losing their broad appeal, and "Hunch" is the closest yet to being an even balance between fun for all and dull for most.
There are memorable songs, of course -- "A Guy Like You," a confidence-builder the gargoyles sing to Quasi, is the one kids will be humming on the way home. But there's also one that would best be forgotten -- "God Help the Outcasts," Esmeralda's signature song. While sung beautifully by cabaret performer Heidi Mollenhauer (who was a good match for Moore's speaking voice), the song itself is ghastly.
"Hunch" does have it's pluses. The visual detail of the character's faces is remarkable -- Frollo's sour, down-turned puss is especially ominous. The marriage between computer and hand animation in a few scenes is better than ever. And some topical asides will tickle adults in the audience (especially a brief "Wizard of Oz" spoof).
But some of the most important technicalities of children's movies, like vitality and swift pacing, are in short supply. At the screening I attended, children were visibly fidgeting throughout, which doesn't bode well for repeat business from impatient parents.
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