Disney has a well-deserved reputation for exploring and extending the boundaries of animation, but with its latest release, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the company is pushing the limits of content as well as technology. The visuals, carefully hand-drawn and augmented by computer design, are beautiful to behold; they are works of art reminiscent of Fantasia. But the script adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel carries much of the darkness of human depravity into the picture, which may be too strong for young children. As Disney's press releases put it, this Hunchback is "an urban fairy tale."
Fairy tale? Gone are the fairies and enchantment; in their places are gargoyles and erotic dances. Like last year's animated pin-up, Pocahontas, Esmeralda, the gypsy dancing girl/heroine voiced by Demi Moore, could go from this film and find work at Playboy. (Demi's next gig, in fact, is the film Striptease, released June 28, and film critics are already drawing comparisons.) Gone is Prince Charming and in his place is Phoebus, Captain of the Guard (Kevin Kline), who knows what he likes in the fairer sex. "What a woman!" he exults as Esmeralda nearly decapitates him. Gone is the jealous stepmother and in her place is a villain motivated by sex.
Disney writers and animators are welcome to throw their hat into the arena of dramas for mature audiences, but they should have done so without equivocating on the issue of children. The producers at Disney apparently felt that they had to make their version of Hunchback appeal to everybody. But some stories-to be well done-necessarily set themselves off limits to young children. This is one of those stories.
Turning Hugo's piercing romance into a happy-ending melodrama punctuated with wise-guy one-liners diminishes the dramatic power and value of the work. By presenting bold depictions of torture, sensuality, and lust, Disney has introduced elements clearly inappropriate for children. Even actor Jason Alexander, the voice of gargoyle Hugo, acknowledges that he does not plan to bring his four-year-old child to the film due to its mature themes. Yet, Hunchback paraphernalia and promotions have clogged up the usual kiddie venues from Saturday morning TV to T-shirts at Target to figurines with your Burger King kid's meal.
To its credit, Disney made an effort to avoid the appearance of attacking the church. Victor Hugo's Pharisee, Claude Frollo, is an archdeacon of the ecclesiastical order. Disney's version identifies Frollo as a "Judge" and goes to some trouble to pit him against the church, represented by a tender-hearted archdeacon.
Regrettably, Disney's good intentions are offset by a fair amount of bad theology muddled together with the sexually suggestive images and text. Christian audiences may be discouraged by songs that reveal Disney's views of the Christian faith and the fallen world. The evil Judge Frollo (Tony Jay) invokes both church liturgy and sensuous fantasy in his hymn to lust, "Hellfire." As composer Alan Menken was quoted in USA Today, "It really tests the limits of what we can get away with."
Esmeralda sings a prayer: "God Help the Outcasts," a beautiful composition, but its lyrics reflect the social gospel and, notably, there is no reference to Christ other than his passing image as part of the stained-glass window.
Bell tower-bound Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) sings about his desire to be "Out There," to fit in "like ordinary men who freely walk about there." The song is apropos for the character and situation, but, along with the song "Someday" ("...we may get to live and let live"), cut from the story but played over the closing credits, overtones of the homosexual agenda emerge. It probably wasn't intentional, but how curious that, as Entertainment Weekly reported, a homosexual advocacy group bears the name "Out There" and that hundreds of customers at the unofficial "gay day" at Disney World bought T-shirts emblazoned with the title.
Essentially, Disney's Hunchback is a fascinating version of the novel, but its drawing card is addressed to adults only. An alternative option for fans of the cathedral and its residents is the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, available on video and starring the ingenious Charles Laughton and radiant Maureen O'Hara.
RKO, like Disney, also felt it necessary to give Hugo's tragic consequences a revamp for the sake of politics and happy endings, but director William Dieterle made no compromises in the sets, sound, makeup, cinematography, and acting. This version of the story retained most of the characters from the book, is filled with eye-popping sets and amazing stunts, and has the best cast.
Charles Laughton's Quasimodo is still the standard by which all other Hunchbacks are judged. The scene in which he introduces the bells of Notre Dame to a dazed Esmeralda by leaping onto and swinging wildly back and forth upon the huge "Maria" is both frightening and marvelous to watch.
For the money, give me Charles Laughton.