As some of my friends have insisted on pointing out to me, my definitive qualities and facial features do remind them well of Quasimodo, leading charmer of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Our similarities stop at massive nose, hairstyle and a chin that could kill, though, as I don’t live in a belltower, nor am I a hunchback. Not yet anyway. Immediately striking here though is the tone, and while Disney is never going to shed their reliable and constant energy of optimism, the deathly booms of the Notre Dame bells and sweeping shots over the beautifully claustrophobic medieval city are oddly appealing.
Strikingly good music brings life to these cluttered streets, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has defined characters that feel as though they represent ideals and history. Quasimodo, of course, is the obvious choice. Voiced well by Tom Hulce helps the case for character representation. Demi Moore and Tony Jay fan this flame, admirable supporting performances that too show the differing and conflicting attitudes to those that may look a bit different. My disagreements with the general styles and magic of Disney are looser here, maybe due to the overall quality found in the performances and direction. There is a clear scope to the story, its first act serving as an introduction and background check of a character whose jolly, redemptive arc is shown with striking, engaging detail.
But enjoyable it may be, it is hard not to criticise the similarities The Hunchback of Notre Dame has to all the other pieces Disney offered at this time. Gargoyle creatures feel similar to that of Mushu in Mulan or Iago in Aladdin. Comic relief that provides a comedian of the time with a bit of work. Here, Jason Alexander steps up to the plate with his role as Hugo, verbal sparring soon follows when Charles Kimbrough’s Gargoyle Victor shows up. It is fine. Nothing of major interest, and they provide the lighter moments, it just feels very emotionless and typical of the decade, one that offered stronger supporting characters in weaker films. Reliable and dependable, but it feels more akin to a narrative crutch than something offering depth, detail, or engaging narrative work.
Still, even with these slight issues, The Hunchback of Notre Dame uses its musical moments and darker themes to construct a relatively rewarding narrative. The ugly prince trapped in the tower, finding love and throwing audiences the idea that we’re beautiful on the inside, even if we are repugnant and beyond repair on the surface. The Beauty and The Beast did it, but without the strong soundtrack. Endearing I may find The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I do have to accept to a degree that it uses narrative and style choices that I disagree with elsewhere. It just goes to show that the period Disney adapts, as well as the characters it presents, are more than happenstance inclusions. My preference for this over other projects of Disney’s 1990s output comes from the cobbled streets of France more than it does from Jason Alexander’s screeching support performance.