Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Disney Renaissance Part 7: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Time for some personal history. After The Lion King and Pocahontas, I took a break from Disney in the theater. Partly because of my disappointment with those two films, and partly because I was starting to "age out" a bit. I'd gone from being a wide-eyed young lad square in the midst of Disney's target demographic to a jaded pre-teen, sneering at the attempts of a bloated corporation to capture my attention. Even worse, I was reading, so when I heard that Disney was going to tackle the literary milestone The Hunchback of Notre Dame for their 34th animated film, I turned up my nose and skipped it in theaters altogether.

A major mistake as it turns out. Several years later I watched it on a lark when it came on TV, and I was absolutely enthralled, captured by a visually and aurally masterful presentation of a powerful and surprisingly adult story. Blew my socks off.

Cards on the table - a large part of the reason I started this retrospective was for an excuse to write about this very film.

When Disney's development decided to turn Victor Hugo's classic novel into the studio's newest animated feature (an idea from executive David Stain according to producer Don Hahn), the project was offered to Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, directors of Beauty and the Beast. The two apparently jumped at the chance to make the film, having read the novel and eager to make an adaptation - though several key changes were made both to make the film appropriate for Disney's family/younger audience and to create an ending that fit with the dramatic arc that the filmmakers were developing. For the record, while I've taken issue with plenty of loose adaptations over the years, these changes are both necessary and validated. And the end result is amazing.

So remember how a few months ago I said I wouldn't make a case for The Rescuers Down Under being some lost/underrated masterpiece? Yeah, I'm TOTALLY doing that with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

And incidentally, I'll be going pretty heavily in-depth into the film's plot, so...

**********SPOILER WARNING**********

Veteran composer Alan Menken returned to write the music for the film, joined again by his partner from Pocahontas Stephen Schwartz (the man who also wrote for the fantastic The Prince of Egypt as well as the Broadway powerhouse Wicked). For Hunchback, a slightly different approach was taken to Disney's traditionally show-stopping musical numbers. While the big set piece songs are there, much more care was taken to providing context - some songs weave seamlessly in and out of regular dialogue, others are group affairs in the vein of "Prince Ali" and "Little Town." Others are solo pieces, either set against a quiet environment or a hellish fever dream. It's because of both this somewhat experimental approach coupled with the actual content and quality of the songs that this film ends up turning out what is (with one unfortunate sour note) probably the single best musical score and collection of songs in modern Disney history.

It's through the music that the movie most nakedly explores its surprisingly mature thematic content. The filmmakers used Hugo's novel as less a text for fanatically exact adaptation than for a jumping off point to explore the intolerance, misogyny, racism, and persecution that featured in the story. And while Hunchback is sure never to be explicit in depictions of violence or abuse, it never shies away from their existence. The tragic murder of a parent isn't a huge act turning point here, it happens in the first five minutes of the movie. Terms like "Damnation" and "Licentious" are thrown around liberally, heavy innuendo is made regarding sexual repression (as well as the opposite - there's a pole dance) and. . . well, to give you a great idea of how far this film goes, here's the requisite Villain Song:

Yeah, that happened in a Disney movie. Considering the way the MPAA has changed in the past 16 years, I'm positive that if Hunchback were released today, there's NO way it would get a "G" rating. Honestly, the movie was stretching it even then. But the film embraces these realities and confronts them boldly in its themes and - even better - allows them to breathe and develop and become cornerstones to character and narrative arcs.

Oh, and did I mention that the movie is FREAKIN' GORGEOUS? Disney's animators seemed to spend this entire film showing off, combining the CGI tools that were used to such great effect in Rescuers, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King with stunningly detailed animation, including sumptuous details in the lighting and dust effects. Marvelous character designs combine the best of Disney Animation's past and present sensibilities, creating an overall package that was visually unparalleled in its time and still has few true challengers today.

The characters themselves consist of a small ensemble - Quasimodo (the titular Hunchback), the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda, the intolerant Judge Claude Frollo, and Phoebus, Frollos conscientious new Captain of the Guard. The actors brought in to voice the characters are great fun. Far less concerned with getting big celebrities to play characters, Hunchback recruits Tom Hulce, Kevin Kline, Demi Moore, and Tony Jay for a somewhat unconventional - but marvelous - group of performances. The film keeps the vast majority of its focus on this ensemble cast, and in doing so results in one of the most well-rounded casts of the Disney Renaissance. While the narrative deftly juggles their disparate motives and desires before bringing them together for an absolutely stunning finale. Quasimodo's yearning for freedom and acceptance become personified by Esmerelda, who forces Frollo to put a face (one he finds irresistible) to the people he's persecuted for decades, and her passion for justice opens Phoebus' eyes to Frollo's abuse of power.

This magnificent control over converging story elements of such ambition is incredibly refreshing after the vapid Pocahontas and the mess that is The Lion King. The movie also plays with its own archetypes - the leading man is deformed and tragic, the leading lady is both very sexually aware and a physical match for her male leads, and the villain is a brilliant double act as both openly infatuated and desperately repressed.

Unfortunately, they main cast aren't the ONLY ones who get screen time. Yep, we're gonna talk about these jokers:

Hey, you guys brought this on yourself.

Actually, I'm not going to totally roast the gargoyles. Oh, don't get me wrong - they get in the way a few times and I could just KILL Jason Alexander (not a Seinfeld fan, and he was the least funny thing about that show) - but there's both a sound expositional idea and a fairly clever sense of subversion behind these particular characters.

First off, the gargoyles fill the dual purpose of giving Quasimodo someone to play off of before he's met the other corners of his love triangle as well as personifying his internal monologue. Laverne, Victor, and Hugo (yes, ha ha) actually function surprisingly well as Quasimodo's Superego, Ego, and Id respectively. And for all the obnoxious distractions that pop up, there are several moments of genuinely funny humor (largely when riffing on Three Stooges "bits") and - more importantly - some very sly commentary on the very function they were created to perform.

Now I'm not sure exactly how intentional all this is, but there's some very telling imagery and stylistic choices associated with the gargoyles that shows there's more to these characters than simple pandering. For one, the film's story proper opens with the narrator character Clopin literally pulling back a curtain, frames events in the context of a puppet show, and the first glimpse we get of Quasimodo is as a puppet or marionette. So what does that mean? The entire film just got framed as a stage play meant to entrance kids with its window dressing, but uses it for the sake of imparting something heavy and meaningful. It's a dastardly clever subversion of the "funny sidekicks" trope, especially combined with what the gargoyles actually are.

Namely: Quasimodo's hallucinations brought on by loneliness and depression.

That's right, THEY'RE NOT EVEN REAL. The movie mentions this fact almost as a one-off when Frollo is re-introduced to the audience as Quasi's demented adopted father, but it's tempting to put that down to the Judge's own cruel and banal nature - of course he can't see that the gargoyles, because he doesn't believe in the power of love and friendship and bunnies. Thing is, no one else acknowledges their existence either. Not Phoebus, not Esmerelda, the only character except Quasimodo that sees one of the gargoyles is the goat. Then there's the song "A Guy Like You" (the lone musical misstep in the film) that shows Victor, Hugo, and Laverene showering Quasimodo with banners and elaborate props - items that turn out to be nothing more than rags and junk when Esmerelda bursts in and breaks up the reverie. This actually calls into question most of the other overtly-cartoonish events in the film that Quasimodo witnesses, since we know that his perception of reality is undeniably warped.

Additionally, the stone clowns play an important role in a scene of such emotional triumph and character payoff that even Pixar on their good days has trouble matching it. Of course, I'm speaking of "Sanctuary!"

So while the gargoyles prove intrusive at times and their schtick features some questionable attempts at humor, they're far from a ruinous force in the film. And if they don't always succeed in their ambitions, the filmmakers' willingness to play with expectations with their sidekicks is admirable and results in some genuinely good material.

I said before that Hunchback isn't as perfect as Beauty and the Beast, but because it aims much higher its success are that much greater. This film has something big to say, not just to a few people in the audience but to everyone - a message as important and wide-reaching as it is timeless. And when the film is focused on that, it allows nothing else to get in the way.

If it weren't for a couple minor issues, this would seriously be a film worthy of standing with Pinocchio, Fantasia, or Bambi as the cream of Disney Animation's crop. As is, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is closer than most.

Hunchback marked a peak of the Disney Renaissance, but several enjoyable projects rounded out the rest of the decade. The following year, the House of Mouse released their most obvious step-by-step attempt to recreate the success of Aladdin - a story drawing from ancient mythology about a young boy desperate to find his place in the world, liberally stuffed with self-aware pop culture humor and featuring a well-known comedy actor as the "magical mentor."

And funnily enough, it came fairly close to working.

No comments:

Post a Comment