The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
Rating -

Animated (US); 1996; Rated G; 90 Minutes

Tom Hulce: Quasimodo
Demi Moore: Esmeralda
Tony Jay: Frollo
Kevin Kline: Phoebus
Paul Kandel: Clopin
Jason Alexander: Hugo
Charles Kimbrough: Victor
Mary Wickes: Laverne

Produced by Roy Conli,Don Hahn andPhilip Lofaro; Directed by Gary Trousdaleand Kirk Wise;Screenwritten by Irene Mecchi,Tab Murphy, Jonathan Roberts, Bob Tzudiker andNoni White

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Written by DAVID KEYES

They say that the standard animated movie is innocent and childish. People have the notion that nowadays, they tend to be comedic and musical stories strictly for children, and that cartoon features don't often portray the dark and cruel elements of real life as the early movies, like "Pinocchio," did. That is simply untrue; even through the period following Disney's unfortunate death, the dark and tormenting factors of life's lessons showed up in the movies just as they did before; they brought on the beastly horrors for children were forced to face. Kids will face this stuff one day in their lives, so why not start out at the beginning when they know more about learning what's right and what's wrong?

In 1985's "The Black Cauldron," the villain, the Horned King, resurrected the dead carcasses of an underground dungeon and made them members of his army of the dead; the "cauldron-born," as he put it. The sequences in which these skeletal figures rise from their grave is so tormenting and frightening that, yes, it resembles those types of moments in the early animated movies; a witch was killed and then left to vultures; a wooden boy confronted the possibility of being swallowed by a whale; heck, hunters almost killed thousands of forest animals when their flames got out of hand. It is a very true belief that moments like this in animation tend to make the minds and bodies of little children grow stronger. If they are faced with these things through animation at such a young age, who's to say that it doesn't shape what they become tomorrow? They'll be informed of what to expect in life as they get older.

In taking this observation seriously, think of the animated movie "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame." It sneaks up on you. It's a story that has been told in countless ways and countless times. Victor Hugo's novel portrays characteristics of life so tormenting and cruel that they are almost too much for adults to handle. Many wondered, how could Disney do this story for children? Simple answer: revise the story to where the formula and messages are the same, but modify the content so it isn't too stern or tough for kids to digest.

The result unveils this astonishing achievement of a movie, filled with all of those horrors and darknesses children were exposed to as in the golden animated classics. At a time when the Disney studios seems to be wallowing in their rebirth of animation, "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" emerges like an animated butterfly; fresh, elegant, and often stunning. The movies is not just for children; it is a show of beauty and wonder for older people as well, be they kids or adults. To get the impression that this is the standard innocent, childish animated movie is to be blind from reality.

To do this movie, Disney's executives obviously took big risks. They had to bring an intense story like Victor Hugo's and rework it to shape the form of an animated movie. Any person who knows what the animation process involves knows that these risks can be hard to get away with. But here, Disney's artists get away with the risks in any little way they can. They tell the story of Quasimodo and the gypsy who saw him for the person on the inside as, more or less, a story about the worlds of prejudice, without ever getting too violent or too tormenting for children to enjoy.

But that's not to say the movie is innocent. In the very first scene, the camera closes in on the peak of the cathedral Notre Dame, standing above the clouds solemnly, as if it were a character all by itself. As it turns out, it is; after we are taken down to the streets of Paris and along the cathedral's walls, the animation and visual techniques bring the church and that stern bell tower above it to life all by itself, without the character narration or motivation. But heck, we're given those things as well. The narrator is a gypsy himself; Clopin (Paul Kandel) sings how the legend of Notre Dame's bell ringer came to be. The viscous Judge Claud Frollo (Tony Jay) brought on the death of a gypsy on the steps of the cathedral, not realizing that she was carrying an infant with her. Deformed and ugly, Frollo almost accomplishes throwing him down a well. But he is stopped by the church's Archdeacon, a man dressed in robes and facial expressions that you wouldn't normally see in an animated movie. He points out that Frollo can get away with the crime he is about to commit, but he can never hide what he has done from the eyes of Notre Dame. Just as he says 'eyes,' the robed statues on the cathedral stare down at Frollo as if her were some sort of coward. The Archdeacon then prompts Frollo to raise the child as his own. Just as long as he is locked away in the cathedral's bell tower, Frollo accepts the punishment.

Oh, but that's only the first sequence; you can imagine what follows. Story directions come along and tie in with the Broadway-worthy musical score and the nostalgic, limitless animation as if they were meant to be together forever. By this, I mean that the blends of these aspects work best with each other. The story itself never seems to get sidetracked from the textures and tapestries of the other whirling elements; and as it draws to its climax, continues pursuing the message it intends to inflict on the audience; that we can sometimes look on the outside of someone and judge them because of it. Yet in reality, it is only fair to judge one on what exists internally.

The whole concept gives a fresh look to a tired story for the movies. Hugo's novel is considered one of the great literary works of this millennium, but the movies, for the most part, vary so widely in content from the original story that its hard to appreciate every modified effort. If there was one to appreciate the most, it would have to be Disney's. It is a triumph of animation and plot, emotion and lyrical music, and of comedy and sadness. Make your children see the movie. If they get to like the deformed main character, then you know these kids can tell the difference between right and wrong.

1998, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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