It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Execution is more important than concept.
Consider Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Doing Victor Hugo’s classic melodrama as an animated Disney musical is an objectively terrible idea. Awful. Comedically bad. You would have to really sit down and think to come up with a classic novel less suited to the genre. Dracula has more potential as a Renaissance Disney movie than Hunchback (Magical villain with a cape and animal sidekicks, heroine who yearns for more than her safe, stale existence, funny comedy relief foreigner and a happy ending, what more do you want?).
But the thing about Hunchback is that, despite the inherent cruddiness of the core concept, everything else is JUST SO GOOD. That animation! The character designs! The backgrounds! The acting! The direction! The singing! The music! YE GODS THE MUSIC!
So what if the final product resembles Hugo’s work so loosely that Disney might as well have claimed it was original IP and called it the “The Adventures of Maurice the Not-So-Pretty Bell Man”? Gorgeous movie is gorgeous.
But what if…what if all that was taken away?
What if you took away the animation, the character designs, the backgrounds, the acting, the direction, the singing, the music ye gods the music?
What if all you had left was that initial terrible, terrible idea?
Probably something like The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2, produced in 2000 but only released in 2002, presumably out of shame. This movie is why we have words like “nadir”.
Let me be clear. It’s not simply terrible compared to the original. It’s not simply terrible as a movie in its own right. It is terrible compared to other Disney Sequels.
By God, you should be.
Alright, so imagine you’re making a cheap sequel to one of the most beautiful animated movies made by an American studio in the twentieth century, and it’s to be animated by Disney’s notoriously shoddy Japanese TV animation studio. It’s not going to look good. Make your peace with that right now. But a good script is no more expensive to animate than a bad one so, y’know, you can still pull this off. You can still make a decent movie provided you don’t go out of your way to remind people of the original movie oh are YOU KIDDING ME…
You know what? I appreciate that. The movie just flat out dispenses with any pretense and shows us where we stand. The opening scene of the original is one of the single most powerful sequences in the whole canon. The gentle Latin chanting suddenly blasted away by the thunderous bells and those mountainous opening chords while Notre Dame looms impossibly tall over pristine white clouds, God, it nourishes my soul.
The opening scene of Hunchback 2 tries to replicate it and every single element is just so hideously inferior. Especially the animation. But especially the music. Especially everything. Everything is equally especial.
So, since last movie featured the Festival of Fools, this time around Paris is getting ready for the Jour D’Amour, with Clopin and Quasimodo OH SWEET JESUS MERCIFUL SAVIOR…
Yeah, so here’s an interesting thought experiment. What if you had a cartoon where the animators simply didn’t have the skill to animate the main character? James Baxter’s original Quasimodo design is quite possibly the most marvellous and intricate model of any hand-drawn character in any Disney movie. It breaks every rule and somehow it works, it’s asymetrical, and heavily detailed and yet it moves with fluidity and grace and somehow manages to look ugly and appealing at the same time which shouldn’t be possible.
This movie’s version of Quasimodo is the animation equivalent of badly performed Shakespeare. The brilliance of the source material actually makes the whole experience ten times worse. Quasi truly is “half-formed” now, veering so wildly in appearance from scene to scene that it’s kind of hard to tell what he was supposed to look like originally. The fact that they actually managed to get Tom Hulce back (and even more bafflingly, Kevin Kline, Demi Moore and Jason Alexander) lessens the pain not a jot.
So Quasi is hanging bunting by swinging from the rooftops like a kyphotic Spider-Man while Clopin sings about the coming Jour de L’Amour. On the one hand, I suppose it’s a positive that the movie doesn’t try to undo the previous film’s happy ending and shows that Quasi and Clopin are both now beloved and accepted members of Parisian society. On the other hand, this is the fucking worst, right here. It’s all so wholesome and saccharine. Seeing Quasimodo and Clopin dancing in the streets together while smiling onlookers cheer and clap just feels…wrong.
The opening song…actually no. Let me talk about the songs for a minute to explain why I’m not going to talk about the songs. Imagine for a minute you were taken hostage by a cult of inbred hillbillies who proceeded to slowly eat you over the course of many months. You would, possibly, decide that one of the hillbillies was nicer than the others. Maybe Ol’ Uncle Zeke is a real peach because he only eats your toes. Having a favourite song from Hunchback 2 is kind of like having a favourite cannibal hillbilly. You might convince yourself that one was less terrible than the others but it’s just your brain trying to protect you. The fact is, all the songs are regurgitated garbage and comparing them to each other is a waste of my time and yours. Moving on.
So Quasimodo is excited because on the Jour D’Amour he gets to ring “La Fidele” a bell that is plan on the outside but studded with gold and jewels on the inside.
Because it’s beautiful.
On the inside.
Do you understand? Do you see what they did there?
Now you might say “Mouse, isn’t the inside of the bell the absolute worst place to put a load of gold and priceless jewels? Wouldn’t the jewels be damaged and the bell sound terrible thus making the entire undertaking a double failure?”
To which I reply “Yeah. Yeah. But…uh, I think we got a bigger problem here.”
No, no. I’m being unfair. How could I expect them to understand how a bell works, they’re notoriously complex instruments.
Anyway, the three gargoyles try to convince Quasi to get out and enjoy the Jour de L’Amour but he says he has too much work to do. The gargoyles are again voiced by Jason Alexander (Hugo) and Charles Kimbrough (Victor) with Jane Withers stepping in to voice LaVerne as Mary Wickes couldn’t appear in the film, as she had passed on by this point. Allegedly.
We then meet Zephyr (Haley Joel Osmond), the six year old result of Phoebus and Esmerelda’s union and every bit as bad as the start of this sentence would lead you to believe. None of the original characters from the first film are anything but a pale shadow of their former selves, but I have to say that Phoebus and Esmerelda both suffer virtual character assassination, as they are here re-imagined as the kind of people who would name their child “Zephyr”. Phoebus and Esmerelda just start making out in front of Quasimodo (nice guys, classy) and talking about how they’re going to be yelling about how much they love each other when La Fidele rings. Zephyr asks Quasimodo who’s going to be screaming his name and he says “I don’t think anyone will” which is completely untrue. I haven’t stopped screaming his name since the movie started, usually followed by “WHY!?” and “WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU, MY CROISSANT SHAPED PRINCE?” Anyway, Esmerelda tells Quasi that there’s a girl out there for him, not her, obviously, I mean, Jesus, but you know…somebody.
A circus arrives in town and the magician/proprietor Sarousch puts on a show for the local rubes. However, his act almost comes a cropper when his assistant fails to appear. He finds her practicing a tight-rope walking act and chews her out, saying “You’re job is to stand there and look pretty.” but she says she want to contribute more to the circus. This is Madellaine.
Madellaine is voiced by America’s Sweetheart For Around Forty Minutes in 2000, Jennifer Love-Hewitt and she will be our love interest for this ordeal. This brings me neatly to what I call the “Quasimodo’s Girlfriend Dilemma”.
So, if we can acknowledge that this whole area is a minefield that we would run from if we valued our lives, let me say that I don’t object in principle to the idea of giving Quasi a girlfriend. I mean, pairing him up with Esmerelda is always going to be too far against the grain of the original novel (plus, two male and female Disney leads having a loving but platonic friendship is important in its own right) but yeah, having Quasi never find love is problematic in a different way. So fine, a romance for Quasi, I’m game.
The trouble is that Madellaine…
Hold up. Has anyone, anywhere, ever seen that name spelled that way? Anyone? I’m half convinced Disney invented a new name just to trademark it. Anyway, Madellaine™ feels anachronistic in a way that none of the other original characters do. Everything about her mannerisms and performance screams “Meg Ryan Rom Com Heroine” and it jars in a way that’s difficult to describe. Oh, but she’s an unqualified success, a veritable Lando Calrissian of seamless sequel integration compared to Sarousch.
Sarousch is our villain and, believe it or not, actually makes for a worthy successor to Frollo. What’s that? You don’t believe it? Well done. I was testing you and you passed. Sarousch is garbage. Not even being voiced by Michael McKean can salvage this trainwreck.
As well as being vain and obsessed with his own appearance, Sarousch is a thief who uses his circus as a cover for heists. Because, if there is one thing this movie wants you to know, it’s that circus folk are all dirty, dirty thieves. Sarousch tells Madellaine™ to go to the bell tower and charm the bell-ringer into showing her La Fidele so that he and the rest of the circus folk can steal it. Madellaine™ is not not happy about this but goes up to the bell tower anyway. Quasi hides because it’s a g-g-g-girl. He hides under one of the bells and talks to her, and they engage in some of the most excruciating romantic banter I have ever had the misfortune of sitting through. Madellaine™ tells Quasi it looks like he’s wearing a massive hat and, OH MY GOD BUT THEY MILK THIS. THEY MILK THIS ONE NON-JOKE UNTIL IT DIES ALONE AND IN AGONY.
Oh, and Madellaine™ can see the gargoyles. She shouldn’t be able to see the gargoyles, because as I made very clear in my last review, the gargoyles are all in Quasi’s head and even when we see the gargoyles interacting with other characters that’s just Quasi Tyler Durdenning.
I explained this. I made it very clear. This movie is undoing a lot of hard work on my part and this will not stand.
Quasi is amazed that Madellaine™ can see the gargoyles (SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP). She thinks she’s going crazy but he says she just has an active imagination. She asks to see his face and when he finally comes into the light she of course doesn’t judge him by his appearence…oh.
She runs off and Quasi sadly goes back to his table of figurines to make a Madellaine™ doll that he can smush against the Quasimodo doll while making kissy noises. Quasimodo then sings An Ordinary Miracle and I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about the songs but seriously guys, you need to watch this shit. Come. Come and gawp at the carnage.
Not even Tom Hulce could save that that! It could not be Hulced!
The gargoyles tell Quasimodo…no wait, back up a step, what the fuck is happening with Victor and Hugo?
They’re changing colour so fast they looks you could stand beside them, play some techno music, drop some molly and get a rave going. Who was in charge of continuity on this? I mean God, they just did not care.
Back the circus Madellaine™ tries to explain that even in the circus she never trained for that kind of ugly but Sarousch tells her he wants the most useless bell in all Christendom and to seduce the Hunchback. Madellaine™ feels obligated to Sarousch because he didn’t turn her in to the authorities when he caught her stealing from him when she was six years old and also because she’s kinda dumb. She feels really guilty about lying to Quasimodo though, and stares at herself in the mirror so long that one of her eyes becomes larger than the other.
So after the magic show Madellaine™ catches up with Quasi and seems him carrying Zephyr home on his shoulders (so now he’s got two worthless lumps on his back, hi-yo!). Realising that anyone who could put up with Zephyr’s unending asinine prattle without dropping him down a well must have the gentle nature of a saint, she does…this.
I’ve mentioned the weird phenomenon of bad acting in cartoon characters before. I don’t mean bad voice acting, I mean when actual cartoon characters give unconvincing performances and Madellaine™ is an excellent example of this. Every gesture she makes is so over the top, so completely excessive, that it makes the Wolf from Red Hot Riding Hood look like Philip Seymour Hoffman. And here’s the thing, that is hard to do. Cartoon characters exist in their own world, we don’t think of them as actors, we think of them as real beings inhabiting their own seperate reality. For a cartoon character to be unconvincing would be like you giving a bad performance as yourself in your every day life. Sucking that hard is an achievement.
So they go far a walk and before you know it she starts falling for him for real. Meanwhile, Phoebus is suspicious because there’s been a wave of thefts since the circus arrived in town and he suspects Sarousch’s troupe. Esmerelda, Quasimodo and Zephyr all get mad at him when he blames the circus folk the thefts and theorises that Madellaine™ is using Quasi to get something else. So, big problem right here. Phoebus, is one of my favourite characters in the original movie and here he’s presented like a bigoted authoritarian jerk. But if your movie is going to be about bigotry you can’t have the bigot be right about every single thing. It is really suspicious that the crimes only began when the circus arrived. The circus troupe actually is behind the the thefts. And Madellaine™ really did get close to Quasimodo to steal something. And frankly, if Phoebus wants to investigate the circus troupe he has really good, compelling reasons to do so.
Meanwhile, Sarousch tells Madellaine™ to lure Quasimodo away from the belltower so that he can steal La Fidele. She doesn’t want to, but he tells her that if she doesn’t, Quasimodo could get hurt. Uh huh. Yeah. Sure. Oh gee, I really hope Sarousch doesn’t hurt Quasimodo. I am so fearful for Quasimodo’s safety. That Sarousch sure is a dangerous force to be reckoned with.
Never happens of course. In fact, Quasimodo and Sarousch never actually exchange dialogue. In two movies we’ve gone from one of the most emotionally rich and dark hero-villain relationships in the Disney canon to a movie where our hero and villain never even speak to each other. I just realised that. This movie keeps finding new and ever more galling ways to show me that that it is the fucking worst thing.
Phoebus shows up at the circus and interrogates Sarousch who pins all the thefts on Madellaine™. While Phoebus looks for her, Sarousch’s men break into the bell and steal La Fidele. They’re discovered by Zephyr and Sarousch decides to take the kid as a hostage.
Quasi and Madellaine™ arrive back at Notre Dame to find the bell stolen and Quasi is furious at her for lying to him. Madellaine™ is arrested but when Esmerelda discovers that Zephyr has been kidnapped Madellaine™ offers to help them find Sarousch. She leads them into the catacombs and Phoebus’ gaurds block off Sarousch’s escape but he threatens Zephyr so they have no choice but to let his boat pass. Madellaine™ convinces Quasi to free her from her shackles and they work together to rescue Zephyr.
She tightrope walks over the boat and grabs Zephyr and Sarousch yells “What are you doing here?” and she replies “Just standing here looking pretty.” because that was the thing that he said and that was the thing she was doing and that’s how screenplays work.
And the movie ends with Sarousch getting thrown in jail and all our couples celebrating La Jour D’Amour, Quasimodo with Madellaine™, Phoebus with Esmerelda and Hugo with Djali. Yes. That happens. The gargoyle and the goat are our first official gay Disney couple. I wanted this for so long.
This is probably breaking some kind of movie-critic omerta but I enjoy bad movies. The Room brings me real, pure joy. I enjoy the first Transformers and Armageddon and probably more of Michael Bay’s oeuvre than I care to admit. Bad movies can be wonderfully enjoyable and even intellectually stimulating. They have a way of getting my creative juices flowing, wondering how I’d fix this character or that plot point. Pocahontas 2 was a bad movie but it was interesting and weird and hilarious and I honestly got more enjoyment out of it than its staid, bland, competent predecessor. But Hunchback 2 hits that awful, awful bad movie deadzone between good enough to be enjoyable and bad enough to be hilarious. However bad it gets, it’s never stunningly bad. It’s suffocatingly bad. Numbingly dull. It’s hideousnesses never sinks to the level of the bracingly garish. It’s ugly, but “seventies Tory” ugly, not “freakshow” ugly. It’s a bad, bad time, is what it is. I’ll watch Foodfight! again before I watch this.
How butt ugly is the animation? Is it as ugly as a butt: 2/20
Well, the characters move. So it meets the criteria of being “animation”.
Are the main characters jerks? I bet they’re jerks: 2/10
This Quasi makes me queasy.
Bet the villain’s a real shitpile, character wise: 2/20
Oh what’s this? Supporting characters? Fuck you supporting characters!: 1/20
No, you know what, I can’t, I just can’t I’m welling up guys…
Man, fuck the music. I hope it dies: 1/20
FINAL SCORE: 8%
NEXT UPDATE: 07 September 2017
NEXT TIME: Taking a bit of a break to focus on other writing but I’ll back in September for a slightly belated extra special fifth-anniversary review. When I started these reviews five years ago I didn’t really know what I was doing.
So I thought it might be fun to revisit a movie I reviewed way back in 2012 and see what an older, wiser Unshaved Mouse review might look like. What’s the movie?