15 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 34: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Cinema is a predominantly visual medium. Even the name "motion pictures" belies such a partiality. Despite the extraordinary efforts of filmmakers to marry their painstakingly crafted images with appropriately intricate sound and song, the pictures will almost always win our favor. Within the art form, animation is a subset that places even more emphasis on visual composition, with the only limitations to the frame being that of the artist's ability and imagination. The Walt Disney Studios is responsible for some of the most influential, everlasting, and beautiful work ever produced in the medium and 1996's feature The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of their most sumptuous and gorgeous films.   

The film is almost overloaded with jaw-dropping shots, breathtaking backgrounds, and especial effects. The animators use every tool at their disposal to create this feast of color and design. The film contains quite possibly the most heavy use of the multi plane camera in animation history, with a number of virtuosic tracking shots early on, zooming through Parisian streets and past delightfully detailed buildings. The realization of fifteenth century France is a resolute stunner, never more so than in the draftsmanship of the towering cathedral that houses a deformed orphan named Quasimodo, exiled by righteous villainy to the belfry forevermore. The church itself is a character in the film, from the expansive stained glass-filled halls to the claustrophobic jumble of beams and bells in the tower. The set is labyrinthine but believable, its layout fully understood in every scene of the picture.  

While the filmmakers use such veteran effects as the multi plane camera, they also relish in the rewards of computer-generated imagery, a technique that at the time of production was still in its relative infancy. There are a handful of circular tracking shots that push the digital tools to their brink, making one wonder why we haven't seen much to surpass it in the decade and half since. Meanwhile dozens of town folk scatter hither and yon as the camera looks down on them from the cathedral's peak. Flames dance devilishly and molten copper cascades through the square. Visually, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the art form of animation at its zenith. It is continually inventive and wonderfully exciting.

The design of the characters is probably the weakest link in the film's visual style. Not that there is anything too egregious but one would hope for maybe a little more invention to accentuate the scope and ambition. The feisty gypsy Esmeralda is a voluptuous, dark skinned beauty that still falls a little to easily into the mold of the generic Disney female. Her suitor, the guard Captain Phoebus looks even more like He-Man than Pocahontas's John Smith. It is heartening however that the animators managed to make our protagonist Quasimodo as ugly as he is, considering the hedging that went into the Beast's design in Beauty and the Beast. Quasimodo looks like a reasonable stand-in for The Goonies' Sloth, if he were to appear in a Saturday morning cartoon show.  

The story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is one of the more operatic and dark in Disney's oeuvre. Like Pocahontas before it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame eschews the traditional opening credit corporate theme. Here it is replaced with ominous chants and the tolling of bells. This grand preamble perfectly sets up the dramatic stakes of the ensuing tale. From there we are quickly plunged into the world of Paris in a prologue narrated by a gypsy puppeteer. This is the first of several instances in the film where characters and motivations are distanced by masks and the obfuscation of storytelling. Elsewhere we see Quasimodo living his life vicariously through the intricately carved dolls that he constructs up in his tower. Later, when he makes his entrance at the annual Festival of Fools--where nothing is as it seems--everyone assumes that the hideous man who stands before them must be masquerading. Meanwhile, Quasimodo's guardian, the treacherous Judge Frollo, hides behind a persona of piety while he secretly pines for the heathen gypsy Esmeralda, a woman who herself must wander the streets disguised as an old man so as not to be trapped and persecuted by the authorities. 

There are some truly emotional arcs to be derived from this tale. The vilification of Quasimodo after he is unveiled at the Festival of Fools is boldly disturbing. A mob of recently joyous partygoers now hurl fruit and epithets at the deformed captive. The cruelty on display in this scene of harassment is quite shocking and utterly effective. Later on, as he sees the beautiful Esmeralda kissing the wounded Phoebus, the filmmakers do not flinch from portraying the confusion and utter disappointment in the pining Quasimodo, who is forced by his good intentions to house a man who usurps his affections. The most interesting thread by far though is the effect that Esmeralda has on Frollo. After capturing her in the cathedral he takes a creepy moment to smell her hair, and one of the most visually arresting scenes in the film comes when Frollo is alone, questioning his righteousness in the face of this feminine temptation. He curses and falls to the floor, vowing to destroy the woman that has stirred such feeling in him.   

Understandably, the film tries to offset its incredibly dark themes with bouts of levity, coming once again from the usual sources, the irreverent sidekicks. Here, Quasimodo's chortling chorus is comprised of three gargoyles who while away the time with the bell ringer up in his tower. Unfortunately the comedy aspects in the picture are once again woefully juvenile and decidedly lowbrow. The tone deaf antics rely on increasingly prevalent gastrointestinal gags that here include a stone gargoyle singing "cut the cheese" whilst making an armpit fart. Belches too make an appearance and the best one can say about their presence is that they're fleeting. The other attempts at humor comes from a series of one-liners tossed off between the gypsy Esmeralda and the guard Captain Phoebus. The banter is supposed to sound playful but comes off labored. 

The film's score sees the second teaming of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and the duo succeed far better than their mostly uninteresting work on Pocahontas. There is still no song as memorable as "Under the Sea" or "Be Our Guest", but the marriage of chanting monks and gypsy music with familiar Broadway tropes is better integrated than the half-hearted attempt to include Indian rhythm to the story of the new world. Lyrically too the tunes are an improvement. The best bit comes from "God Help the Outcasts" sung by Esmeralda as she is held captive by the cathedral's sanctuary. While the incessantly pious churchgoers pray for riches and fame she longs solely for acceptance. The best songs in The Hunchback of Notre Dame play up the melodrama and expand the emotional palette of an already epic plot. 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a surprising success. As the template for the films released during the so-called Disney renaissance became increasingly obvious, the filmmakers took on a intense tale of persecution and loneliness with a touch of rarely seen maturity. The film only falters when it caters to the perceived whims of animation's assumed audience, children. The themes at stake here, particularly those of jealousy, estrangement, and manipulation are ones that resonate far deeper with disillusioned adults than starry-eyed kids. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a big, bold entertainment that pops off the screen with relentlessly inventive imagery and dynamite dramatics. The bells toll in triumph.


  1. This is the only post-Black Cauldron Disney film I've seen in a theatre, and I remember being overwhelmed by the scale, motion and precision of the set animation. But the side characters and humor are, as you say, terrible and I don't recall a single song.

    1. I had zero expectations for this one going in. Suffice to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

    2. The songs were the freakin' best part of the movie.