Keep out of reach of children

The Hunchback of Notre Dame offers a dangerous Disney innovation: authentic emotion

A month into its much-heralded summer release, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame has begun a slow limp down the box-office ladder. Everybody who harbors ill will toward this film--and there are a surprising number who do--want to take credit for its (relatively) poor performance with the public. Southern Baptists snicker that their homophobic boycott has worked, while nervous Disney executives who never wanted to release such a dark, lustful version of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel are poised to take a tighter rein over the studio's next big project, a musical version of Hercules.

And then, of course, there are the endlessly quoted children's advocates who complain that the studio has sneaked too much sociopolitical commentary into the movie, with the result being a "kiddie film" that presents a scary, explicit look at persecution. (Actor Jason Alexander, who voices the inevitable Disney sidekick, Victor, bluntly told Entertainment Weekly that "Disney would have us believe this movie's like the Ringling Bros. for children of all ages. But I won't be taking my 4-year-old.")

While Hunchback isn't nearly as honest about its secular-humanist politics as Pocahontas, its moral lessons are driven home with fiercer dramatic force. The film doesn't preach to kids so much as invite them to identify with the lovelorn, resourceful Quasimodo (the voice of Tom Hulce) so they can experience his loneliness, humiliation, and eventual redemption. Audiences travel a long, oddly death-obsessed, and occasionally harrowing road among those three points.

After a short life controlled by the evil Judge Frollo (Tony Jay), 20-year-old "Quasi" falls in love with Esmeralda (Demi Moore), a tough chick with a sexy swagger who makes Pocahontas and Belle from Beauty and the Beast look like the whiny wallflowers they are. But this bit of romantic intrigue is doomed from the start, more a concession to recycled Disney plot traditions than a legitimate part of the tale. We know this is true after the introduction of Disney's first Token Male Hero: Phoebus (Kevin Kline) comes along to jut his jaw and flex his pecs because somebody's got to wind up with Esmeralda, and despite the film's bluster about "all God's creatures" deserving love, it's not brave enough to reward Quasimodo's pure soul with the hand of a beautiful, intelligent woman. With a puss like that? This is Holly-wood, folks.

Although Quasi may resemble a waxwork Nathan Lane placed too close to the furnace, we know he's not nearly as "ugly" as Judge Frollo, who likes to torch gypsy huts with families still inside them. Before Frollo so much as raises a finger to commit a dastardly deed, we know he's rotten to the core because he looks like Quentin Crisp and, in the grand tradition of Disney villains, conducts himself like Tallulah Bankhead buzzing on a Midol-Tanqueray cocktail. The viperish effeminacy that distinguishes a vast majority of the studio's bad boys is a sore point for a film company that struggles both to maintain its strong gay cult following and dodge charges of pro-gay propaganda from fundamentalist circles. Whenever the issue is raised with a Disney spokesperson, the homophobia charge is usually reversed: "We never said they were gay. Why do you think they're gay?"

The appropriate answer to that question, from any gay critic who's brave enough to risk attacks from his own community, is: "Because they swish like a ball gown on a 90-pound drag queen."

Like it or not, stereotypical behavior is the currency of cinema; good movies surprise us by inverting, reinventing, or destroying stereotypes, but they still rely on the public's broad concept of how a certain type of person looks and acts. When you consider the equally cliche "manly men" who constitute the ranks of Disney heroes, the pinch-faced mincing of their antagonists looks all the more significant. The implied connection between "unmanliness" and villainy has popped up in world literature throughout the centuries, a hoary convention Mickey Mouse is happy to pass on to new generations.

In any case, the studio's sins are more the consequence of a long history of self-plagiarism and lazy storytelling--what public-relations flacks and many reverent critics call "the Disney tradition." If anyone needs evidence that the Disney marketing myth has fused whole with the studio's commercial and critical reputation, the chilly reception to the daring Hunchback of Notre Dame supplies the fingerprints. This is the first Disney animated feature in memory that depicts human passions free of the mind-numbing sentimentality that kept the literary aspirations in Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King "safe" for children. The film is fascinating not so much for its content--a souped-up variation on the fossilized Disney formula--but for the way its operatic ambitions chafe against the suffocating confines of that formula. What might be considered mildly provocative from any other film company feels positively revolutionary from Disney, a studio that's been strangled creatively by its own reputation for quality.

It's not surprising that The Hunchback of Notre Dame has freaked out so many people. When American ticket buyers lay down their cash for a new Disney animated feature, they expect a wall of high-tech sugarcoating to keep them safe from the emotional consequences of the film's central conflict. A dark, raging passion burns at the center of Hunchback that can't be contained by all those Disney conventions: the lovable animal sidekicks; the nelly villain regularly humiliated and ultimately defeated; the chaste romance between the hero and heroine who, no matter their ethnicity, still look and feel whiter than marshmallow fluff on Wonder Bread. Parents must decide whether the film's confrontational portrayal of the traumas of outsiderhood is suitable for their children, of course. But given the number of 7-year-olds being schlepped to the far more violent Independence Day, protests about the dark tone of Hunchback seem hypocritical.

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