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Hey, you know what I love? Long, angry flame wars. By which I mean, I do not love those. At all. I bring this up because…while I know that I don’t have anything to worry about (the followers of this blog were, after all, recently voted Nicest Commentariat on the Internet)…
…but nonetheless I’m a little nervous going into this review. Hunchback, man. People feel…”strongly” about Hunchback. There are those who will loudly and passionately proclaim this to be the unacknowledged masterpiece of the Renaissance, the best thing Disney ever did. And then there are the Hugo loyalists, who think that the movie is an absolute disgrace to the source material, the perfect case-study for the abominable practice of Disneyfication. And then there are some who don’t have any particular fealty to the source material and just hate it as a movie. My friend Moira, (bracketsandampersandsyoureadnow) has often told me she just finds the whole film to be downright nasty and unpleasant.
So, which camp do I fall into?
Alright, let’s be honest here. This movie has problems. Serious problems that run right to its very core. The source material, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, quite frankly is not suited to being adapted into a Disney movie. Not because it’s dark, although it is. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Disney can do dark. It just can’t do bleak. Now, full disclosure, I haven’t actually read the novel…
…but it ends with Frollo being flung from the cathedral by Quasimodo, Esmerelda being hung and Quasimodo mourning beside her body until he slowly starves to death.
Coupled with that, the book is an often scathing critique of religious hypocrisy and extremism…right?
And that’s something that Disney is just not cut out for. So we get changes like Frollo being a judge rather than the Arch-Deacon of Notre-Dame which leads to all kinds of plotholes and general silliness. These two forces, the dark source material and the sunny demands of the Disney formula are constantly pulling this movie in different direction and often threaten to tear the whole thing to pieces.
And yet…and yet…
When it works? When the emotional power of the story comes together with the gorgeous visuals, the near flawless animation, some great voice work and an absolutely spine-tinglingly excellent soundtrack by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz?
Guys, when this thing works? It SOARS.
And it’s brave too. I mentioned the laicisation of Frollo (and you know what? Fair enough. Catholic parents shouldn’t have to deal with a Disney movie telling their kids what’s wrong with their faith any more than Aladdin should have a screed on the depiction of women in the Qur’an) but notwithstanding that, this movie goes to some pretty dark places. And in its portrayals of sexual obsession and prejudice it’s remarkably honest and unvarnished. And that’s really Hunchback all over. It’s a weird, misshapen, sometimes ugly thing on the outside. But inside it has such beauty, and heart and courage…it’s kind of like…um…
Ah well, let’s take a look at the film.