Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The Ambitious Rebound
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is definitely one of the most notable and interesting films in the Disney animation canon, for its ambitions and darker content but also for good examples of the problems that Disney was having with their animated films at the time... Did it continue the successful streak that the company was enjoying in the 1990s? Or did it slow things down?
Disney was soaring, critically and commercial, by early 1995. Anticipation for Pocahontas was gearing up, after the last string of films. Audiences flocked to see Beauty and the Beast, made a beeline to the theaters to see Aladdin and The Lion King broke records left and right... Then came Pocahontas, seen as a middling effort from the critics and from the audiences as well, but it was still a hit. But it was a big decline in quality from the last three films, with formulaic annoyances that were used in the last three films not working within the context of the setting. It more than caused controversy over its altering of history, it's decidedly Disneyesque story and its portrayal of the Native Americans. Pocahontas' success is something another studio in 1995 would've given an arm to have, but for Disney - whose Lion King got accolades left and right and grossed a massive $312 million domestically - this was a disappointment.
The disappointment train further continued with the next feature, an adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in many ways is very similar to Pocahontas. Both aim to be big, prestigious and serious films, both experiment with adult themes and both have the Disney formula hanging on their back like a weight. The biggest similarity it shares with the 1995 Disney film is that it's based on something that definitely isn't family-friendly, and making a family film based on it would be a very hard task. If anything, the writers were re-imagining the 1939 live action classic based on the novel but differentiated it from that great film in many ways as well. (If you love this film and haven't seen the 1939 film, I recommend that you check it out.)
The first thing that The Hunchback of Notre Dame does right that Pocahontas did wrong was a major feat for post-Walt Disney animation. Like that severely misguided film that came before it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Disney's animation department dipping their hands into pretty adult-oriented subject matter, the sort of things you wouldn't normally see in a post-Walt Disney animated film or a family-friendly film, period. Hunchback deals with corruption, genocide, racism and the dark side of religion... Pretty heavy stuff there!
Unlike, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame uses all of this to its advantage and crafts a great outcast story around these themes while doing well with the Disney formula looming in the shadows. The good vs. evil story is handled a hell of a lot better than it is in the previous film, with a villain who is the antithesis of the cardboard, idiotic gold-digger Ratcliffe. Judge Claude Frollo is not only nasty and sometimes genuinely terrifying (he's very rarely ever comical), but he's very complex. He believes he's doing right, and he justifies his cruel actions.
Not only are the writers making this villain more than just your typical diabolical villain, they are also being gutsy and actively tapping hot-button issues. On top of that, this villain finds himself lusting after the very thing he sees as evil... And spirals into a black hole of madness because of it. Did I forget to mention that he manipulates poor Quasimodo, killed his mother (which we see onscreen!), tried to drop infant Quasi down a cold well, and has done a whole slew of other terrible things?
In short, Judge Claude Frollo is one of Disney's best villains. Hands down...
So already, Hunchback kills it in the good vs. evil story department. It may not exactly be like Victor Hugo's novel, but for a family-friendly adaptation, it works so well. It doesn't shy away from darker content and it gives us strong characters... That's right, strong characters! Not like the ones in Pocahontas that just weren't anything special. Quasimodo is a sweet, Dumbo-type whose optimism of the outside world - and later - his heartbreaking realization of how cruel it can be, is handled brilliantly. Esmeralda is quite a defiant one, since her people are persecuted by Frollo. A very solid rebel character for sure. But then there's Phoebus. Not a bad character, in fact he's a rather entertaining one... But he really serves as the catalyst for Quasi not getting the girl due to his appearance... They actually averted the Renaissance love story formula a bit, and Esmeralda and Phoebus don't have a big love ballad or anything. The romance is just there to add an element of heartbreak to Quasi's story. Another plus, there.
Despite following the same template that the last few films followed, Hunchback soars above its formulaic elements because of its mature subject matter and the fact that it's not afraid to inject a little more darkness into the proceedings. Unlike Pocahontas, it handles what it has a lot better. The aforementioned main story works very well, and there's a romance that's only there to improve the main character's story arc. How about the songs? Do they all work?
Yes! They really do... Well, almost all of them...
You get the Broadway showstopper in the form of "Topsy Turvy", but the scene's inventiveness and colorful nature makes it fun, plus it doesn't feel shoehorned in. "Out There" is a great "I Want" song because Quasi truly wants to see what's out there beyond the bell tower, you can feel his yearning early on so it's not annoying. The singing voice only heightens that, as you can feel the unselfish desire to leave. Then there's more fun to be found in "Court of Miracles", where a gleeful Clopin sings about executing Quasimodo and Phoebus, whom he initially thinks are spies for Frollo.
"God Help the Outcasts" is appropriately somber, though it does tend to veer into the Oscar bait territory a bit, but it's still a beautiful piece. Beyond these few pieces, the songs take quite a different route.
"Hellfire" is not your typical villain song, instead it's Frollo's mind going to war represented by terrifying visions - did I forget to mention the subject matter and what the villain wants to do? It's an incredibly intense sequence, and the visions add to that greatly. By contrast, Quasimodo's gentle and optimistic "Heaven's Light" - though short and ruined by a certain something (we'll get to that) - is a light of hope going against Frollo's spiral into madness.
Last but not least, the opening... "The Bells of Notre Dame" is how you open a Disney animated film, especially a musical. It's dark, it's ominous, it's thrilling, it sucks you right into the story while also showing what the film is going to be like right off the bat. Frollo's brutal kick to Quasimodo's mother's head and the statues seemingly glaring at him while the Archdeacon sings about his heinous crime... It tells you right away that this isn't going to be what you expect from a modern Disney film. From eerie opening choir that plays over the title cards to Clopin's high note ending, it's truly incredible.
To say nothing of the animation. Medieval Paris looks a bit desaturated, but it's not without color and life. The "Topsy Turvy" sequence is a needed visual panache of exploding colors, going along with the vibrancy of the whole song. When the film gets darker, the color enhances the mood. Burned-down Paris midway through the film combined with the choir makes the scene look like hell. A scene like "Heaven's Light" makes use of bright blues and other colors, but "Hellfire" goes against this with shadows and a harsh fiery scheme.
So with how good this film is, what holds it back?
The fun couldn't last with this one. This was the mid 1990s after all. You know what that means? The suits had to come in crash the party. And how did they do that?
The gargoyles solely exist to lighten the load for the little children in the audience, to go against the heavier aspects and quieter moments of the film. The film can't be a beautiful work of art for too long, there's got to be some gargoyle doing an armpit fart. Executive logic, plus lots of toys can be sold and whatever fast food chain is partnering with Disney can do a promotional tie-in. It's why Flounder exists, it's why Flit and Meeko exist, it's why Terk exists, it's why Mushu exists... You get the idea. The executives had the filmmakers insert them into several scenes, such as the "Heaven's Light" sequence. Quasimodo sings a beautiful song while the three gargoyles draw Esmeralda and crack jokes, and also... What's with Hugo's attraction to Esmeralda's feisty male goat Djali?!
At first, it seems like the gargoyles have a reason to be in the film. They are Quasimodo's only friends, but it's heavily implied throughout the film that these stone statues come to life in his imagination... Now that would've been fine, minus all the stupid jokes, but alas the gargoyles do actually come to life as revealed in the film's uneven climax. They also get a silly, "Under the Sea"-wannabe musical number that barges into the film when things start getting dark, and the song even goes as far as making light of this chapter of the film! ("True, that's because it's on fire.")
But aside from the gargoyles and what they bring to the table, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is definitely the most daring film that Disney Animation released during the 1990s. I consider it the best of the era, not only because of the risks they took but also because of the very strong story work and how it takes the Disney Renaissance formula and actually works real wonders with it. The songs all work minus the Gargoyles' number, comedy and drama is balanced well for the most part, and the animation is a knock-out in several departments. The use of computer animation is even more striking, with full shots of Notre Dame - my favorite being the shot of the stained glass window when Quasimodo carries Esmeralda up the cathedral and shouts "Sanctuary!"
After audiences and critics were let down by Pocahontas, did The Hunchback of Notre Dame pick things up? Sadly, it didn't...
The Hunchback of Notre Dame did get quite a lot of positive reviews, but others sharply criticized the comic relief, feeling that it really hurt the film while also not approving of the liberties taken with the original novel. People who were tired of the Disney formula couldn't see past its shortcomings. Luckily, the reception was better this time around - but it sadly didn't get the prestige and love that Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King received.
Did audiences like it? The Hunchback of Notre Dame grossed $100 million at the domestic box office, over $40 million less than Pocahontas, and it had an opening weekend that was a little smaller than that film. The underperformance could be contributed to a few things. Adults that were growing tired of the same old hat tricks made up their minds upon seeing the trailers featuring the comical gargoyles and just skipped it. It's also possible that family audiences were alienated because the film was too dark and intense for young children. The film also could've underperformed because it didn't appeal as much as the previous films, given the story, content and setting. Maybe it was because it wasn't as fantastical as the last three films, with very little magical elements.
Whatever the reason, it didn't do as well as the previous films though $100 million was still fine for an animated film back in 1996. It just wasn't a blockbuster total, and Disney brass deemed it a disappointment. It especially didn't look good next to Space Jam's $90 million gross. However, it did better overseas, thus the big budget film made it all back with a good-sized $325 million worldwide take. It was still a little less than Pocahontas though. Video sales were good as expected, but like other Disney films that didn't do extremely well at the box office, it was unfairly swept under the rug. Thankfully, it's fanbase is growing despite Disney's reluctance to give the title the love it deserves - along with several other titles.
The film never got a "2-Disc Special Edition" DVD anytime after 2000, while Pocahontas and Mulan got special editions. Since this and Hercules were on the low end of the list, box office-wise, Disney didn't bother giving the films good DVD releases. Hunchback received piss-poor DVD treatment in 2002, a disc that included only a few bonus features, not all of the LaserDisc features were ported over to this release. The Blu-ray is also a letdown, not adding anything new while also... Well, let's not go there. At least the film looks great on the disc.
Little by little, like other unfairly mistreated Disney animated classics, it's getting the popularity it deserves. Its darker elements and storyline are admired, and Frollo is also being recognized as one of the great Disney villains. The rediscovery has been great in the past five years or so, and as it gains new fans, Disney ought to take notice.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame aspires to be something worthy of Walt's best, the Golden Age features that are the bona fide tip-top achievements of both Disney animation and animation in general. It gets very close, though the meddling functions as something an anchor and does hold it back a bit. Where it soars, it really soars. This is probably the darkest and most adult-oriented of Disney's animated features of the last 40 years, even more so than today's very well-made and mostly pretty consistent Disney animated films. Remove the gargoyles (or replace their dialogue with less goofy, childish one-liners) and the unnecessary comic relief, and you'd have one of the greatest Disney animated features. Even with the pandering and problems, it's still a very strong and daring effort.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is in the second tier of my ever-evolving best-to-worst Disney animated classics list. What are your thoughts on this Disney animated feature? Sound off below!