Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Why Haven't I Seen That?: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)

Welcome to a new installment of WHY HAVEN'T I SEEN THAT?, where we talk about a must-see or iconic movie that we have never seen...until now. This week we take a look at the 1996 animated Disney classic...THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.  Enjoy.

Concepts of faith and justice collide in a clash of sparks and fire on the streets of 16th Century Paris in the Disney animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Combining harsh visuals and a spine-chilling score, Hunchback easily settles into place as the darkest of Disney animated films. However, it is the themes of hope and resistance that rise above the pain and anger depicted onscreen that truly leave a lasting impression. Although flawed in parts, Hunchback of Notre Dame stands, for this reviewer, as one of the most deeply impactful movies to be released from the Disney creative team.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the story of Quasimodo, a deformed young man held in solitude by his master, Frollo. Frollo, the Minister of Justice in Paris, is a man of cold morality driven by his lust for power. He rules with the combined power of piety and justice, representing religion gone mad. In direct contention to him stands the figure of Esmeralda, a beautiful seductive figure that shows Quasimodo a world of acceptance and joy beyond anything Frollo ever allowed his servant to imagine. The confused Quasimodo is pulled between these two forces -- the looming towers of Notre Dame on one side and the alluring colors of the street on the other.

So many things in this animated masterpiece deserve mention, but none stand as impressively as the incredible music that explodes from the screen in Hunchback. Alan Menken, the creative genius behind almost every great Disney animated film (from Beauty and the Beast to Tangled), is at the top of his artform here, creating a symphonic sound that is truly unique within the animated family genre. “The Bells of Notre Dame,” the opening song of this musical journey, swells to an awe-inspiring high and stands as one of the more criminally under-appreciated songs in Disney’s discography. Frollo’s anthem, “Hellfire” is deservedly remembered as one of the most truly terrifying of villain songs.

However, a song that truly deserves its own paragraph is “God Help the Outcasts,” Esmeralda’s powerful ballad prayer performed within the foreboding walls of Notre Dame. This song was almost removed from the finished product for being “too dark.” A replacement song, “Someday,” was even recorded and storyboarded as the more-positive alternative to “God Help the Outcasts”’ somber tone. Songs from animated films are often memorable; few are truly transcendent. From the themes of faith in the face of discrimination to the beautiful symbolism and lyrical imagery, this prayer hymn is truly one of the greatest of both Menken and Disney’s songs.

On a purely musical level, Hunchback succeeds to an unbelievable level. However, there is far more to its beauty and power than just its songs. The animation of Hunchback is thrillingly-done, with sweeping shots of Paris’ streets combined with intimately close scenes within the claustrophobic environment of the cathedral. There is a sense of majestic horror in Victor Hugo’s classic tale that seeps into the gorgeous frames of this adaptation. This is one of the darkest G-rated films I have ever experienced, as it refuses to hold back on Hugo’s biting commentary on racism and prejudice.

No film is perfect and The Hunchback of Notre Dame does have its share of flaws. Quasimodo’s sidekicks, the gargoyles of Notre Dame, provide an occasionally unecessary level of comic relief that undermines dramatic tension. The gargoyles’ song, “A Guy Like You,” is fairly maligned (to an unfair extent, in my opinion) for being out-of-place within the grander film’s darker tone. As an adult viewer of Hunchback, I found myself both enjoying the comedy of the gargoyles and feeling frustrated at their inclusion to a level I feel I would not have as a member of the films’ younger target audience. In general, there are tonal elements of this movie that seem largely driven by Disney’s desire to take an extremely dark source material and convert it into a G-rated family film. While I understand the difficulty of this task, I can’t ignore the fact that it does create a genuine flaw within the finished product’s general structure.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is oftentimes forgotten in discussions of animated Disney classics. Esmeralda is sadly excluded from the official lineup of Disney princesses. In general, it seems, this 1996 film is passed over in conversations of “must-see Disney.” I would put forward that this film deserves better. From its shockingly deep messages to its amazing animation to its unforgettable score, this is truly one of the most-creative, most-effective animated movie I have ever seen. This ranks among The Prince of Egypt and The Lion King as an animated family film with themes that go beyond the normal restrictions of genre. I cannot recommend Hunchback enough. Perfect films don’t exist. Despite its issues, The Hunchback of Notre Dame earns my score.

Jonathan's Score: 10/10

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