film & game reviews, the retro way.
OF NOTRE DAME
Back in 1996, Disney released their own animated take on Victor Hugo's classic story The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and the result was a commercial hit that, nevertheless, left critics and audiences with some mixed feelings, though in time it did garner more appreciation.
The heavier themes the story explores like religious guilt, justice, cruelty, humanity etc. were always going to be a challenge to inject into a kid-friendly animated feature and, indeed, very quickly there is a disconnect between the richness of the source material and the comparatively shallow (if effective) Disney formula. This movie is a lot more Prince Of Egypt or Pocahontas in tone than it is, say, Aladdin or even The Lion King in that it keeps its whimsical aspects to a minimum, instead delivering grand, sweeping, melodramatic musical numbers worthy of Les Misérables and tackling some big emotions along the way. Unlike Pocahontas, however, it tells its story in a competent way and only dips its toes in inappropriate zaniness when things get perhaps a bit too harsh for younger viewers.
The wisecracking gargoyles and Esmeralda's stubborn goat in this movie admittedly do distract quite a bit from what should have been an overall more mature animated movie so this comes off as Disney forcing its formula onto something that deserved to be different and those expecting a faithful adaptation of Victor Hugo's gothic novel might get turned off by that. There was definitely a serious attempt made here at respecting the spirit of the story as much as possible, however, with Quasimodo going through an emotional and physical hell throughout and Notre Dame feeling like a character in itself.
A lot is sugar-coated and changed from the novel, of course, most notably the ending, but if the aim was to make a version of the story palatable for kids then this honestly works very well. While I would have loved a bolder, more serious and faithful take on the story, there's only so much you can expect from an animated Disney film and, considering that, this is a much better film than it had any right to be.
The animation, which does use CGI for crowds and sweeping shots around the cathedral, is stunning and the musical numbers are beautifully designed. Whether it's Quasimodo's hopeful "Out There" or Frollo's lust-fuelled "Hellfire", there's a weight to each song and the epic visuals reflect that extremely well. The terrific voice cast includes Demi Moore as Esmeralda, Tony Jay as Frollo, Tom Hulce as Quasimodo and Kevin Kline as Phoebius.
This is an ambitious project from Disney that doesn't rely on the usual cheesy prince and princesses with their ridiculously perfect teeth and tries to tell a story with a real emotional weight to it.
It's Victor Hugo-lite, for sure, and the cutesy creatures tacked on as comic-relief are a disappointing distraction but Hunchback Of Notre Dame remains a visual treat with some great songs, big themes you wouldn't expect a Disney film to deal with at all and very good voice performances so it's well worth not judging this book by its cover.