Disney continued to own the animated market place with this release. Obviously it wasn’t going to be a very faithful adaptation of the book considering how dark it is, what with all the death ‘n all. But they managed to surprise even a few adults with some darkly imagined themes and even songs along the way in this all bells ringing update of the Hugo classic.
We open with what was probably some of the most stunning animation yet used – but has clearly dated rather badly thanks to the emergence of the computer generated animated films that now dominate the market. There is a very grand opening number in “The Bells of Notre Dame” but does strike a resemblance to “Arabian Nights” from Aladdin. Probably because it was the same vocal artist/composer who’d ran out of ideas.
Tom (Amadeus) Hulce takes on the role of the winner of the feast of fools, Quasimodo – who spends his time acting like the world’s most professional voyeur by literally looking down on the crowd beneath the grand cathedral, with nothing but a few loony gargoyles and wish fulfilment for company.
We are introduced to his religious zealot guardian, Frollo, playing villain in what could have been one of Disney’s finest (but somehow manages to end up in the middle) whose cruelty knows very few bounds. We also then meet the noble captain of the guard, Phoebus (Kevin Kline), who – like Quasimodo – takes a shine to the lady of the piece, Esmeralda (Demi Moore). In fact Frollo takes a guilty shine to her too later on. They manage to push the boundaries in one of the songs – which is sung by the Frollo as he lusts over Esmeralda. It’s perhaps a little on the dark side to sing about wanting a woman, and if she rejects you that you will burn her alive, but to Disney’s credit they did it, and they did it well.
Long before any of the darkness settles in we are treated to plenty of delights. The interplay of the market place where the general public go about their business is well crafted and is enjoyable to watch as you really do get to be immersed in the scenery. Kudos also goes for the accurate animation of Notre Dame.
Tom Hulce can carry a tune, but he is perhaps too oafish and boy-like in his voice to carry any real sorrow. Quasimodo is more like an overzealous puppy who is only too eager to play. It doesn’t strike many notes when it comes to his dislocated position from the outside world. His disfigured looks and loneliness are of course mentioned and he often finds himself at the end of pointing hands and laughter – but it is never dealt too heavily in order to make any real impact on the audience. And this is crucial as the whole story is literally about intolerance and acceptance.
The four set of characters end up in a game of cat and mouse while allegiances are turned against each other in a bid either to get what they want, or to do the right thing. It probably goes without saying that the film ends with a grand climax at the cathedral. It also goes without saying that things wrap up nicely for the good guys – and yet another villain is disposed of by sheer fate – As opposed to a hero actually defeating them (for more on that see the pathetic way they disposed of Gaston at the end of Beauty & the Beast).
All in all this is a very pretty and grand looking affair – that ultimately seems dwarfed in places by its small cast of characters. To say that it strays from the book is almost a pointless argument – it is more important that here in a Disney film they managed retained so much.