Sunday, January 27, 2013

1996 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Pocahontas may have made big bank, but it was a critical disaster, and the box office and merchandising receipts, while quite good, were pathetic compared to the Lion King. In the past when Disney’s taken a drubbing, they’ve retreated into their comfort zone and made a few easy successes before getting ambitious again. But that was back in the day when they’d make one movie at a time. These days they start a few years in advance, and before this came out, they must have been sweating bullets. Their sensitive epic romance inexplicably based on a violent and depressing era of history had failed them. How would their dark, mature drama based on a 500,000-word French Gothic novel do? Nervous? So were they. So something something French food and let’s talk about The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The tagline on the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel Lolita teased the audiences by asking them the same question they were thinking: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” They may well have done the same for this. Of course, films have been made of Victor Hugo’s classic novel before, but this was very different. How did they take a sprawling masterpiece 500,000 words long full of sex and betrayal, murder, abuse, and rape, commentary on the injustices of medieval French culture and the importance of architecture to our society - How did they turn that into an 85-minute family musical? I think the best thing to do would be to return to the format of our Pinocchio review and compare the adaptation character by character. Starting with our main character…

I'm a Disney Princess!
QUASIMODO - Of course, the mere fact that he is the main character is the first deviation from the book. See, the original title of the book was “Our Lady of Paris”, the name of the titular cathedral, as well as a reference to Esmeralda, who is, if not the protagonist, at least the central figure in the plot. But since the name of the cathedral isn’t translated in other countries, the pun fails to work, and the first English translations decided to name the story after its most unique character. Thanks to his being in the title, he tends to be MUCH more prominent in adaptations than he is in the original book.

Not that he isn't important in the book, of course, but he’s definitely on the lower end of the ensemble cast in terms of importance. Book Quasi is not only hunchbacked and deformed, but also deaf, mean, and spiteful. He’s also possibly insane, and while he may or may not be simpleminded, he is certainly ignorant and uneducated. Movie Quasi is kind, gentle, and loving. Still not particularly smart, but in a childlike way rather than a mad hermit way. His deformities have been softened as well, giving him a working mouth and two eyes. And while his legs are still unable to walk properly, the animators designed him with large, powerful arms that let him swing nimbly from the belltower ropes.

All of these changes, I am pleased to say, work wonderfully. Quasi was going to be the main character no matter what, so it’s far better they change him into something that works as a protagonist then try to use only what Hugo gave them. And it does work. He’s sweet, he’s kind of cute while still being visibly extremely deformed, and his voice, performed by noted guy-who-was-almost-really-famous-for-a-while-there Tom Hulce, is great, too. This brings us to the original protagonist…

Hey, Ms. Tambourine Lady, play a song for me.
ESMERALDA - Like in the book, Esmeralda is a Gypsy who is immediately the object of desire for every man who meets her. Book Esmeralda, however, is naïve, flighty, and shallow, whereas the movie’s version is bold, confident, and deep. In both versions, she cares for Quasi after he’s tormented by a crowd, giving him water. Movie Esmeralda does this out of a sense of social justice. Book Esmeralda does it out of a tender heart, though she’s still so disgusted by Quasimodo she can’t stand to be near him. By contrast, in the movie, she’s the only one who can look past his ugliness as soon as she meets him. So what they did here was keep the core of the character the same while changing all the things around it, including whether she dies at the end. Yeah, in the book she dies. Then Quasimodo crawls into her grave and holds her body until he starves to death. But not so much our next subject…

Yeah, I was a bad guy in the book, and now I'm literally a golden knight in shining armor.
PHOEBUS - Phoebus is a handsome, high ranking soldier who lives all the way to the end. Like all who meet her, he is infatuated with Esmeralda from their first meeting. The similarities end there. In the book, Phoebus is vain, petty, and cruel. He’s engaged, but pursues Esmeralda purely for sexual purposes. He’s basically an entitled little roarhead. In the movie, he’s a sassy yet noble hero, who cares deeply about the plight of others. And while Esmeralda’s certainly a boom animated babe who makes him think the wrong things, he’s mostly attracted to her for her spirit and passion. Some have complained that having the handsome guy get the girl betrays the spirit of the movie, but if the message is not to judge by appearances, that goes for pretty people, too, and the movie really goes out of its way to portray them as perfect for each other. He’s drawn well, too. A bit more manly than John Smith, with a period-appropriate haircut and well-placed lines on his face that make him look like someone who’s actually lived a life. He’s voiced by Kevin Kline, which is occasionally weird. Kline has a rather Mephistophelian voice that doesn’t always suit a hero. There’s a reason he made his name playing thieves, murderers, pirates, and jerks. But hey, Phoebus was a bad guy in the book. And since we’ve removed all the negative qualities from one villain, let’s remove all the positive ones from another…

Work that sneer, girl.
FROLLO - HELLFIRE! DARK FIRE! NOW GYPSY, IT’S YOUR TURN! This guy is the best villain yet. In the book, he’s a caring and kind priest with a deeply compassionate side, who adopts Quasimodo out of pity, and raises him as a son, albeit fairly poorly. After becoming Archdeacon, he meets Esmeralda and is (of course) immediately consumed with lust, which leads to bad decision making, including stabbing Phoebus, attempted rape, and burning Esmeralda alive. Quasimodo, who had already beaten him nearly to death earlier, snaps and throws him from the roof of the cathedral.

In the movie, he’s not a priest, but a judge. Many have presumed this is to avoid offending religious folks, but it has a very valid plot reason, too, giving him direct control over the city guard and a personal connection to Phoebus. This makes him the immediate cause of Esmeralda’s trouble, rather than him just turning her in to the authorities. He is still deeply religious, though, and mentions God constantly, with his big Villain Song taking the form of a prayer. His compassion is gone, too. He now adopts Quasimodo because he thinks it will help him get to heaven, and raises him in a cloud of esteem-destroying verbal abuse. And his lust for Esmeralda is blatant and horribly sleazy from the start, though his twisted mind blames her for “bewitching him”. He’s dark, twisted, genocidal, and totally unredeemable, and it works great. And he’s voiced by Tony Jay, who’s so deep and British and evil he makes Christopher Lee sound like Tiny Tim. And speaking of high-pitched entertainers…

"Just look at me! How am I not the worst character! It defies all sense!"
CLOPIN - In both versions of the story, Clopin is a Gypsy and the leader of his organization. The main difference is that in the book, he’s the king of thieves, but in the movie he’s the head of a street performance group that hangs out with thieves. In both movie and book, Clopin tells jokes constantly, which makes him a good fit for comic relief. He’s a lot goofier in the movie, but still maintains a sinister edge -  a bit from early in the book where he attempts to murder someone for walking in ‘his’ streets is kept in the movie, for instance. To make it suitable, rather than just being some poor sap, it’s Phoebus and Quasimodo, whom Clopin has every reason to believe are working for Frollo. But he notably shows no remorse when he finds out they’re legit. He’s also shown in the Feast of Fools number as fairly sociopathic, injuring and mocking people with abandon. So while he’s not the murderous thief he was in the book, he’s not been completely neutered.

He also narrates the story of Quasimodo’s origins in the opening song “The Bells of Notre Dame”, which is probably the best opening a Disney movie has ever had. He’s performed by Broadway actor Paul Kandel, who gives him a generic “European” accent that can’t be placed, which fits the character perfectly. My only regret is that the two times Kandel gets to use his trademark vocal trick, a truly impressive high note, it’s mixed waaaaay down under the music. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the way the sound comes out on my computer. But that’s a very minor complaint in what’s otherwise a great character. It’s really good writing when a crazy clown-man with a silly puppet doesn’t ruin the tone of the movie. We should always be so lucky. But before we get to them…

DJALI - Djali is the traditional “smart animal sidekick”. He’s Esmeralda’s pet goat, and he has all the usual traits we’ve seen with Abu and Pocahontas’s animals and all them. Human-level intelligence, rescuing the heroes from scrapes, etc. Remarkably, not only is he in the book, he’s the only character to make it through completely unchanged. Rather more drastic changes were made to…

Easy Joke.

FLEUR-DE-LYS, GRINGOIRE, SISTER GUDULE, AND JEHANE FROLLO - These four characters were cut from the film for various reasons. Fleur-de-lys was a petty, shallow socialite whose only function was to be Phoebus’s fiancé, so that’s an obvious cut. Pierre Gringoire was a tiresome poet that served as the protagonist in the early part of the story, and a viewpoint character afterwards. He was (of course) in love with Esmeralda, who saved him from hanging by marrying him, though she didn’t return his affection. He’s not a horrible character, but Phoebus works better for the plot, so he got all of Gringoire’s positive traits and Gringoire got the boot. Sister Gudule was an anchorite, a sort of religious hermit who lived in a little cell in the middle of the city with little windows for people to gawk at her. I mostly remember her from the 1923 film, where people would constantly be walking past her cell for her to scream abuse at. Anyway, she’s Esmeralda’s secret mom and also completely pointless, so naturally she got the cut.

The character I would have liked to see is Jehane Frollo, Claude’s little brother and the family screwup. He’s a drunk, a gambler, and a petty thief, and Frollo supports him financially out of a sense of familial obligation. In return for this Jehane agrees to act as his brother’s henchman when he goes a little nuts, which gets him thrown out of the bell tower by Quasimodo. While not an essential character, I think they could have done something fun with him. But since they took four out, they have to put four in…

THE ARCHDEACON AND THE GARGOYLES - The Archdeacon’s a bit of a nothing. He convinces Frollo to spare Quasimodo’s life at the beginning, then more or less disappears. Really, he’s just there because Frollo’s not the archdeacon, and they need someone to explain why Quasi lives in the church. For the rest of the film, all he does is offer vague reassurances and ineffective protests.

What I really want to talk about is the Gargoyles, aka THE WORST THING IN THE MOVIE. See, this movie is serious. It is dark. It is mature. As I hope I’ve made clear, the filmmakers went to every effort to maintain the movie’s unique tone and not dumb it down at all. And then for some reason they decided they needed Wacky Comedy Relief to tell Wacky Anachronistic Jokes and engage in Humorous Slapstick and Banter. So Quasimodo’s best friends are three gargoyles who come to life when no one’s looking and get WAAAAACKYYYY. It’s horrible.

And no, they’re not figments of his imagination. That’s a defense often given to this idiotic addition, and I can see why. If it were true, they would be annoying, but at least one could understand their inclusion. But while they don’t speak to anyone but Quasimodo, they interact with the real world in tangible ways, and are occasionally seen when he’s not there. So that’s so excuse. And there’s no basis for it. Unlike Pocahontas, where the magic was annoying, but there was still an overarching tone of magical realism that encompassed all of the movie. Here, the gargoyles are it, no other magic.

It’s difficult to describe in words just how badly these clowns fit the tone of the movie. But every time they speak, they cut down whatever serious tone the movie has built up. Their WAAAAACKY musical number comes right in the middle of an emotional high point. Paris is on fire! Frollo’s gone mad with power and desire! Lives hang in the very balance! Time for a song about how loveable Quasimodo is, complete with costume changes and big sets and “funny” props and it’s all so damn WACKY FUN TIMES AHOY.

And since their presence in the film isn’t limited to one or two scenes, but is pervasive throughout, it really throws off the tone of the entire film. I even noticed this when I was 12 and saw it in the theater, and it‘s only gotten worse since then. As a final note, the two male gargoyles are named Victor and Hugo, which is reasonably clever, but the female is named Laverne - despite the fact that Victor Hugo‘s middle name was Marie. So they can‘t even get that right.

CONCLUSION - This is already rather longer than I meant it to be, so I'll keep it brief. While the gargoyles come close to ruining it, and the movie can't trust its own tone to carry it through, the good is IMMENSELY good. All the changes they made from the book click into place excellently, the music is amazing, the animation beautiful. Definitely and emphatically recommended.


* I know Gypsy is a slur at worst and misinformed at best, but it’s the only term they use in the film, I don’t know the exact ethnic grouping of the characters, and it’s so pervasive that anything else would be confusing, which is why many Romani groups use the term themselves, to be all-inclusive. So, sorry about that. Least-bad option.

* Clopin’s opening narration claims that Quasimodo is “a cruel name, a name that means ‘half-formed’.” It actually means “almost normal”, which is a lot less cruel. More to the point, he was named that since Frollo found and adopted him on Quasimodo Sunday, a church holiday that gets its name from a Bible verse that starts out “quasi modo geniti infantes”, meaning “like newborn babies”. In context, it’s almost sweet.

* In both versions, Esmeralda gives Quasimodo water as he’s being tormented in public. In the book, it’s because he was sentenced to whipping and public display for trying to kidnap Esmeralda on Frollo’s orders, which makes her pity even more keenly felt. In the movie… They just kind of tie him up and start throwing stuff at him for no reason. It’s kind of weird.

* If the word roarhead confused you, it’s a running gag that I haven’t used in a while. Feel free to browse the archives.


* One of the guards is voiced by character actor Bill Faggerbakke, using the same voice he’d later use for Patrick Star on Spongebob. It’s a bit odd.

* The Feast of Fools is held on January 6th, which is probably pretty cold, but no one’s dressed for winter in this movie. I thought maybe the animators didn’t know, but they mention the date in one of the songs, so I don’t know what.

* The animation is beautiful, using CAPS to fully integrate live-action techniques like long crane shots and rack focus in ways they could never before, which adds a level of heightened realism which is fantastic.

* Two bits of comedy that did work were a guy on stilts at the festival who was knocked over by Clopin several times guy, and a guy who is freed from a gibbet, only to fall immediately into the stocks. Later, he is freed from the stocks and falls into a sewer. Phoebus gets some good snark, too.

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