The Hunchback of MTV?

by William Moritz

FrolloFrollo, narrator of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
© Walt Disney Pictures

Max Fleischer's motto was "If it could be done with live action, it's not animation," and Dave Fleischer once griped to me about how many thousands of times he had to repeat that to the animators over the years to get them to improve their work with those imaginative, visionary impossibilities that belonged exclusively to the realm of creative animation. What would the poor Fleischer brothers think about the current animation scene, in which almost every animation studio is involved in duplicating live-action stories?

One can hardly help asking that question about Disney's latest feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which has already been filmed several times as a live-action feature, in addition to Franz Schmidt's operatic treatment (which supplied some of the music for the Alfred Newman score to William Dieterle's splendid 1939 version). The answer, however, is that Disney has managed to make a wonderful movie out of Hunchback (with one hideous blemish, which we'll come back to later), a film so moving and thrilling and inspiring that it doesn't matter whether it's live-action or animation. It's just a good movie.

The adaptation of the story, credited to Gorillas in the Mist screenwriter Tab Murphy, cleverly eliminated some of the complexities of Victor Hugo's storyline, carefully sidestepping the brothels, tortures and philosophical intricacies (the two heroes, one poet and one warrior, are condensed to one sensitive soldier) and other aspects of the original which would have been unsuitable for younger viewers. Making Clopin a narrator/master-of-ceremonies was also an excellent idea that allows the basically adult story to become an excellent childrens' adventure tale.

Quasimodo and EsmeraldaThe rescue scene with Quasimodo and Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
© Walt Disney Pictures

Of Dieterle Born
It must be noted that the adaptation is very much of Dieterle's Hunchback--in particular, Charles Laughton's boyish Quasimodo with his one lumpy eye is clearly the model, just as Sir Cedric Hardwicke's thin, pinched face inhabits the animated villain Frollo. But this doesn't really matter, because the Dieterle film is so fine, it amounts to good taste to imitate it, and in most cases the Disney version lives up to the high standard set by the earlier film. For example, the brilliant scene (not in Hugo, but created by Bruno Frank) in which Esmeralda enters Notre Dame for the first time, and prays to Mother of God to help her outcast people while the "devout Christians" pray for money, sex and glory, the Disney team have supplied a great musical number "God Help the Outcasts" with knockout color visuals, Esmeralda slowly walking through the shadows and light-shafts of the cathedral until she finally stands bathed in a mandala of light from one of the stained-glass rose windows.

Art director Dave Goetz, layout supervisor Ed Ghertner and background/color artist Lisa Keene deserve special credit for creating and sustaining a medieval atmosphere, and a clear sense of the antithesis between the sacred and profane which lies at the heart of the story. Key staff visited Paris to study the real Notre Dame cathedral and Victor Hugo's own sketches of the Paris he knew and imagined, while Disney's unit continued to provide authentic detail, and this all pays off superbly.

The gargoyles (Hugo,Victor, Laverne) with Quasimodo and EsmeraldaThe gargoyles (Hugo,Victor, Laverne) with Quasimodo and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
© Walt Disney Pictures

The musical score also helps support this respectful treatment of Victor Hugo's historical romance, with an almost operatic tone to the serious numbers (including real chants, and use of a hundred-year-old organ and a professional choir recorded in London). The orchestrator, Michael Starobin, also employed some genuine instruments of the late medieval period (such as hammered-dulcimer, gittern and shawm) to give the profane scenes an added sense of authenticity.

The computer-generated crowd scenes with an active cast of hundreds are duly impressive, the Feast of Fools full of lively whimsy, and the action-adventure scenes with chases and fights very exciting. The quite effective voice talents include Demi Moore as Esmeralda (in the animated visuals, by the way, a genuine woman of color, intelligent and capable), Kevin Kline as the blond-bearded soldier Phoebus, and Tom Hulse as Quasimodo. Hulse himself sings quite well his operatic aria "Out There", but Esmeralda's heart-rending aria "Outcasts" is supplied by a professional singer, Heidi Mollenhauer, whose voice timbre blends seamlessly with Demi Moore's speaking voice.

Compounding the Kitsch
What a waste, what a shame, then, to find in the middle of a magnificent, splendid film a set of characters and a musical number so vulgar, so tasteless and so far removed from the medieval period that it completely spoils all the spellbinding adventure in this special atmosphere. I refer to the introduction of three gargoyle "comics," and their song "A Guy like You," which attempts to lure Quasimodo out of the cathedral by depicting a gambling casino (poker chips and roulette wheel) and a low-cut gowned torch-singer splayed across a bar piano. All of this takes place in the cathedral of Notre Dame. If I were a good Catholic, I think I would be offended-- indeed, if I were a good pagan, I would be offended, since the genuine historical gargoyles actually represent the spirits of the old pre-christian religions, and are much more imaginative character. One of the gargoyles, Hugo, is particularly offensive, compounding the kitsch of Phil Silvers and the camp of Jim Carrey-- totally obnoxious. In the official The Making of The Hunchback of Notre Dame documentary, producer Don Hahn calls Hugo "a crazy frat boy," but what is Animal House doing in medieval Paris? Where was Dave Fleischer when they needed him?

Quasimodo and EsmeraldaEsmeralda greeting Quasimodo during the Festival of the Fools.
© Walt Disney Pictures

The official Disney press release calls these gargoyles "kind of the Disney mortar that holds the whole story together," but the effect is quite the opposite-- it makes the carefully built magic of the bygone era crumble. Other official statements identify this gargoyle episode as a link with the Disney tradition, and compare it to the pink elephant sequence in Dumbo. Certainly not the Walt Disney tradition, for there are no jalopy races (nor obnoxious creeps) in Snow White, nor telephone calls or airplanes in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. And the pink elephants are wholly integral to Dumbo's contemporary circus ambience and the particular plot point of the accidentally inebriated heroes. I can see no real excuse for the "gargoylettes" in Hunchback, except as a bid for Broadway. Much of this same team was responsible for creating Beauty and the Beast, which is still running in its hit stage version. And the press release describes this "showstopping tune" as "in grand boulevardier style with a touch of Broadway panache." If that was the case, it seems quite misguided to me, since the audience for Broadway shows is vastly different and more sophisticated than the very much younger audiences for Disney movies. The number should be cut from the film and saved for the Broadway version of Hunchback, when it would be eligible for a Tony as an original song.

Esmeralda and PhoebusEsmeralda and Phoebus in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
© Walt Disney Pictures

In a mad hope that I could convince someone to cut the gargoyle number before Hunchback opened in movie theaters, I wrangled a phone interview with directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. They adamantly defended the gargoyle sequence, insisting that it was "deliberately anachronistic," and since gargoyles were fantastic creatures anyway, that seemed to give "a crazy license for them just to go nuts for a minute." Dramatically, they said, it also set Quasimodo up for the disappointment he was about to encounter in the next scene. They seemed peeved at my suggestion that the number might have been inspired by thoughts of a Broadway version, and said Broadway was their last concern while working on a film, when their only care was making the best film possible. Why, I asked, did gargoyle Hugo have to be so obnoxious, since no one else in the film, even the villains, were really obnoxious? They said they believed Hugo was in a Disney tradition of "loudmouth sidekicks" of which they offered the examples of Baloo in Jungle Book and Jimmy Cricket in Pinocchio. Hugo reminds me more of Lampwick in Pinocchio, so much so that during the climactic (genuinely touching) moment in Hunchback , when a little girl reaches out to touch Quasi, I felt like warning her, "Don't get mixed up with him; he hangs out with really bad friends." In any case, the directors suggested I wait until the film came out on video or laserdisc, and then I could just cut out or skip over the abominable gargoyle sequence.

I should have guessed by the way the gargoyles are being pushed in the print ads and other promotional materials that at some level "Disney" suffers from a real lack of confidence in the true excellence and virtues of their Hunchback of Notre Dame--even though the same team did produce a Best Picture Oscar nominee without any obnoxious anachronisms. Or is it just a triumph of an MTV era sensibility that doesn't shrink from snatching images and ideas from any source, and doesn't care if the mood and tempo changes completely every five minutes, with no unity or direction beyond the pleasure of the moment? In either case, it's sad, because without the gargoyles, Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame would have been a great film; with the obnoxious anachronisms it becomes an average compromised committee-assembled piece of commercial mishmash. Too bad.

Quasimodo atop the cathedral
Quasimodo atop the cathedral in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
© Walt Disney Pictures

William Mortiz teaches film and animation history at the California Institute of the Arts.

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