The Hunchback of Notre Dame
A movie that can't decide if it's for kids or adults
Hunchback of Notre Dame
Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
USA, 1996
As I write this, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been playing in the US and Canada for about two weeks. Since the premiere screening, I've been considering my thoughts on the movie, as well as absorbing Disney's PR, people's online musings, and various newspaper and magazine articles.

At the end of it all, it comes down to this: Disney needs to get its act together.

Not in everything, of course. You can't beat a Disney advertising campaign. Television ads, fast food tie-ins, World Wide Web teasers, plus books, toys, and t-shirts ensure that kids, teens, and adults will all have heard of the film by the date of its release.

You can't beat their press relations, either. Their Hunchback of Notre Dame press kit was like no other I've ever seen: as well as the usual slides and images and glib cover sheet, there is a Web site fact sheet; a 78-page booklet devoted to the making of the film, including 20 pages of complete film credits; and a multimedia CD-ROM press kit. All devoted to crafting a sense of wonder at that old Disney magic.

As to the movie itself, you can't beat their artists. With few exceptions, Hunchback is one of Disney's most finely-crafted films of recent years.

So I have to ask myself: with all of this in place, why hasn't Disney put out a really good film I can enjoy without reservation since Aladdin?

Since the studio's Little Mermaid-induced recharge, they hit their peak somewhere between Aladdin and The Lion King. Beauty and the Beast marked Disney's first real attempt at aiming beyond the children in the audience. While The Little Mermaid was crafted to appeal to preadolescent girls, it still wasn't the type of film adolescents or adults would go to on their own. Beauty and the Beast went a step further and successfully targeted a more adult crowd by being positioned as a date movie. Amazingly, this was done while still retaining a significant appeal to kids; the story, songs, characters and situations worked whether you were over or under the age of 10.

With Aladdin, they were able to pull this off a second time, but Aladdin went beyond being a date movie to being a really good adventure-comedy. Again, adults could and did go without necessarily bringing the kids along--although the kids that did go had a great time as well.

It was around The Lion King that things started to go wrong. Here was a movie where things got simultaneously better and worse.

Artistically, the movie was a tour de force--here was Disney naturalism as we'd never seen it before. They managed to successfully integrate computer technology to enhance the film without calling attention to itself, and the hand-drawn work was as brilliant as ever. Storywise, it was bold and powerful: strong archetypes, bold themes, forces of nature--these elements added up to some pretty heavy stuff.

At the same time, The Lion King suffered from being made to fit into the Disney formula. The songs didn't integrate into the film quite as well as in, say, Beauty and the Beast. While they were being used to bring out character exposition, as in the tradition of the best musicals, they also had more of a "drop everything and sing" feel to them, not entirely advancing the plot. While the cinematography was fantastic, it did become overindulgent at times, even for such an epic film. In-jokes and references to the modern day are not problems in and of themselves (see Aladdin), but the Nazi rally references in the "Be Prepared" number was a bit much. The formula was starting to show signs of strain.

Pocahontas was problematic for a number of reasons, but in terms of this discussion its major flaw was that it was the first concrete sign of slavish adherence to the Disney formula at all costs. Cute animal sidekicks, big show tunes and production numbers, the need for a villain and his bumbling henchman--all the elements were there. Some were executed flawlessly (I particularly liked Meeko's expressiveness), but few, if any, were necessary in the form they were in.

And then along came Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the contradictions were even more striking. The studio force-fit Victor Hugo's classic into the Disney formula, consistency and storytelling be damned.

Let me make one thing clear: this is not a rant about how Disney butchered the original story. I have no problems with adapting established works to new media, and I also have little problem with changing the story in the process. Cinema in general and animation in particular are filled with adaptations that strayed from the original but still worked in their own right--West Side Story, Blade Runner, Dragonball, and Kiki's Delivery Service are but a few. Perhaps my only concession is that if a story is going to be significantly altered from the original, the title should be changed, with acknowledgment to the source material (like the first three of the examples I gave). Hunchback's problems are largely in its strict adherence to a badly-applied formula.

Formulas are not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the best movies ever made have followed certain formulas. However, it's important to choose the right formula for the right movie, and to make judgement calls as to how closely that formula will be followed, in order to respect the integrity of the story.

In Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney went farther than they'd gone in a long time. Frollo's menace, Esmeralda's aura of sexuality, and the prejudice against Gypsies (and Quasimodo) were palpable things. These adult themes were handled expertly, and one has a sense that the studio could have made a more or less straight adaptation of the original story that would have been absolutely riveting.

Unfortunately, someone decided that some of the characters needed sidekicks. Why not? There's been one in every post-Snow White Disney feature. Besides, they're cute. But someone forgot that the sidekicks in most Disney movies before Pocahontas have served some sort of purpose to the plot. Meeko, Flit, and the governor's dog could have been excised from Pocahontas and no one would have noticed except for the toy manufacturers. Similarly, the wisecracking gargoyles in Hunchback served no real purpose, and the "A Guy Like You" production number--the only truly anachronistic segment in the movie, and glaringly at that--stood out like a sore thumb.

The character animation was more subtle in Hunchback of Notre Dame than I'd seen in most other Disney films; for once, I found that things were expressed well through simple actions instead of expository dialogue. For example, the scene with the little girl caressing Quasimodo was truly touching. Phoebus' wry expressions spoke volumes. As if to compensate for this subtlety, there was a certain reliance on slapstick in scenes that didn't need it. Humor has a place in the most dramatic of battles--for example, Rafiki's take on Bruce Lee in The Lion King worked very well--but the Warner Bros.-like gags during the siege on the castle were simply inappropriate.

And so the trend continues. For every step forward, Disney clings ever more fiercely to their well-established formula. This can't last. As their stories mature, they'll find it harder and harder to keep that appeal to kids. They'll also find it harder to apply their well-established formula to these stories and keep things consistent.

What they should do is decide whether a movie is going to be for adults, for kids, or for both. Then they need to establish a tone for that movie and stick to it. Obviously, they can do films for kids, and they can do films for both kids and adults. The question is, can they do it for adults and keep it consistent? The answer is yes and no. The artists and writers have the talent; but do the decision-makers have the gumption?

Given Disney's predominance in the industry, perhaps what's needed is for them to release more adult-themed or offbeat features under the Touchstone or Miramax labels. They've already done this successfully with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach, and less successfully with the ill-fated Arabian Knight. However, these don't do much for the public's (or investors') perceptions of feature-length cel animation. Ironically, the studio with the best chance of making a hugely successful animated feature outside of the Disney mold is Disney. They have the artistic, marketing and financial resources. And if they pull it off, the rest will follow--and give us the kind of diversity in animated storytelling we deserve.

Originally printed in fps #10 (Summer 1996)
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