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The Hunchback of Notre Dame


Disney’s first three animated features, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, and Fantasia certainly didn’t shy away from nightmare imagery and a post-Silent Era sense of expressionistic horror, but the studio only twice chose well-known horror stories as adaptation material. The first time was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which was adapted as one-half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad. The Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fully embraced the tropes of theatrical gothic horror while keeping its scares reined in just enough to not alienate the intended audience. The short runtime kept the frightening bits from sinking too far beneath the surface and a good time was had by all. The second time Disney adapted a horror story, they chose Victor Hugo’s far more existentially terrifying The Hunchback of Notre Dame – an indomitable dark story about physical deformity, intolerance, prejudice, misogyny, sexual deviancy, physical abuse, and, most terrifying of all, the pains of a broken heart. It’s brutal stuff. Given the wild critical and box office success of the long run of animated features that make up the studio’s so-called ‘Second Renaissance,’ Disney was apparently prepared to roll the dice and embrace every inch of it, especially since Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the directors of the Best Picture-nominated Beauty and the Beast, were behind the production.

Hunchback of Notre Dame I and II, The
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a dark film, especially by the Disney animation standards of 1996. The filmmaker’s willingness to adopt darkness is the source of the film’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. The darkness tends to work well for the genuine heft of the melodrama. Some sequences are positively heartbreaking in a way that wouldn’t have worked if the production shied away from the story’s more horrifying aspects. Sometimes, the lack of shyness is a bit shocking, as in the case of the film’s notorious centerpiece song, ‘Hellfire’ – the villain’s furious ode to his sexual desires. The darkness becomes a weakness when the production loses its nerve and rolls out tonally uneven comedic relief in the form of three gargoyles voiced by Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and Mary Wickes. Besides throwing the film’s tone all out of whack, the gargoyles also aren’t very funny. I suppose the fact that they might not be real and merely a figment of Quasimodo’s emotionally disturbed imagination is actually more depressing than anything implicitly stated throughout the film. Perhaps they aren’t funny because Quasimodo is too sad to be funny. The gargoyles are also a symptom of a bigger overall problem where serious subject matter is suddenly treated as traditionally cartoony. Likely the worst mismanagement of tone is the scene where the gargoyles sing Quasimodo a light-hearted, jazzy ditty about how great he is as Paris burns under Frollo’s tyranny.

Obvious tonal problems aside, The Hunchback of Notre Dame may be Disney’s most underrated animated feature. It’s an incredibly brave and beautiful production that comes awfully close to the kind of artistic ambition too often muffled by the studio’s need to make money and appeal to the widest possible audience. The unexpectedly creepy/downtrodden subject matter and willingness to embrace the religious iconography of the story are only pieces of the puzzle. Hunchback of Notre Dame is possibly the closest the studio ever got to a true opera – where the story is actually told through song and where song can break into spoken dialogue, rather than being entirely separate entities. The approach is never entirely embraced, but we get a glimpse of what might have been during the opening number, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame.’ This intro, where Clopin the clown tells Quasimodo’s back-story, is so musically melodramatic and visually vivid that it turns emotionally overwhelming and sets a bar the rest of the film can never quite meet.

Hunchback of Notre Dame I and II, The

Hunchback of Notre Dame II


This second film is an unusually chintzy production, even by STV standards. Disney’s early STV animation sequels, specifically the Aladdin sequels, looked pretty rough, but once they started getting attention, they really upped the animation quality. Somewhere around Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (also directed by Bradley Raymond in 1998 – two years before Hunchback II was completed), they managed to find a middle ground between multi-million dollar theatrical output and perfectly acceptable B-product. You can always tell the difference between the original and the STV sequel, but usually the animation work is better than average. Hunchback of Notre Dame II’s animation is rivaled even by some of the studio’s weekly television output. The characters are slightly off-model, their movements are stilted (including long, contemplative pauses), optical zooms are used in place of animated camera moves, animation cycles are over-used, and painted highlights float around between frames. Much of the film also appears to be animated on ‘twos’, meaning there are only 12 frames per second, rather than 24 (sometimes, movements are sped-up in a failed attempt to cover the lack of frames). And it doesn’t just look cheap – it looks old.

Shockingly, the production managed to bring back the entire surviving cast, including Demi Moore and Kevin Kline (which might be an expression of how quickly their careers had dropped in the six years between films) and even added the still hot Haley Joel Osment and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I could barely tell you anything about the film’s plot, because it was all so mawkish that I felt like I was watching a Sunday morning Christian propaganda piece. Basically, Quasimodo has taken on the role of nanny to Esmeralda and Phoebus’ son, which is among the most insulting situations the character could end up in, following the events of the first film. Not only does the poor sap lose the girl, he has to take care of her lovechild. Anyway, events eventually lead our hero to a place where he gets to have a girlfriend. It’s awful, but it is mercifully short – under an hour without credits.

Hunchback of Notre Dame I and II, The

Video


My expectations of these post-digital, giant-budget, Disney Blu-ray releases are set high enough that it’s hard to even find anything to say beyond, ‘Wow, this looks great.’ Hunchback of Notre Dame’s new, 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is no exception to the rule and…um, wow, it looks great. Things start with a nice detail upgrade. The image is so sharp that it even gives away surprising ‘shortcomings’ in the cell animation, such as a sketchy quality to Phoebus’ hair. The 3D digital characters that fill out the backgrounds of crowd shots also have issues blending with the hand drawn animation – something I never noticed while watching the film on television or DVD. The overall palette is often quite dark for a Disney film, with large sections of the story taking place during overcast skies, dusk, dawn, or dead of night. The base palette is made up of mostly blues and purples, which are contrasted by fiery oranges. The occasional daylight sequence is incredibly vibrant, but the more common dark sequences are given pop via various characters’ trademark wardrobe items, such as Esmeralda’s pink scarf, Frollo’s rings, and Phoebus’ yellow armor. The backgrounds are among the most consistently complex of any animated feature I’ve ever seen. In 1080p, the fine lines of the buildings are incredibly crisp and the painted gradations are smooth without banding effects. When comparing the older DVD release to the Blu-ray, the biggest upgrade is the clarity of the Festival of Fools sequence. Wonky-looking CG characters aside, there’s just so much going on here that the compressed image turns fuzzy with digital artefacts, especially when colourful confetti is thrown into the mix. On Blu-ray I see no real signs of compression or blocking effects.

It’s hard to judge how much of the sub-par image quality of Hunchback of Notre Dame II’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is truly a lack of caring on Disney’s part and how much is just crummy animation. The basic image quality is strong enough to support the former theory. It’s surprising how grainy the image is and how often print damage artefacts appear. It really does look like an older film than the original and all the cell dirt and scratches certainly don’t help matters. But, the colours are quite vivid without digital compression issues and solidly separated (assuming the cell paint isn’t running). Details are also strong, though detail isn’t really an important part of this simplified production. Instead of the sharpness making the difference in busier painted details, this HD image reveals the actual texture of the paint strokes and paper.

Hunchback of Notre Dame I and II, The

Audio


This new, uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 immediately begins to show off its richly layered, multi-channel abilities with the bells, organs, and droning male chorus of Alan Menken’s opening score. The centered vocals during the more incidental ‘storytelling’ songs are a bit loud and occasionally overpower the underlying music. This isn’t a problem for the bigger show-tune moments, where the sheer quantity of instruments and back-up vocals create so much noise there’s no chance for the lead vocals to banish anything. ‘Hellfire’ features the most in the way of additional sound effects; mostly, you know, fire, which blazes violently from the stereo and surround channels. Non-musical moments where the track impresses include the horrifying bit where Quasimodo is pelted with vegetables (the jeers of the crowd engulf the viewer while chunks of salad fly in from various channels), the proceding chase (which is heightened by the film’s most cartoonish sound effects), various storm sequences, and, of course, ringing church bells.

Hunchback of Notre Dame II sounds fine, I guess, in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but the weak budget certainly rears its head in terms of a really thin sense of ambience and immersion. There is one brief bit where Quasimodo invites his new girlfriend to ‘listen to the sounds of Paris’ and the channels are inundated with bells and laughter, along with some storm sounds and scenes with minor crowd noise, but these are exceptions. The effects work is largely canned, too, including really obvious pieces of sound straight from a digital sound effect library. The music sounds decent (you know, for bad music) and is convincingly symphonic, rather than synthetic or electronic, though the singing center channel is almost always cranked a hair too loud.

Hunchback of Notre Dame I and II, The

Extras


As is tradition with these double-film Blu-rays, all of the extras were available on previous DVD releases. The Hunchback of Notre Dame extras begin with a commentary track featuring producer Don Hahn and directors Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale. This is another one of those well-prepared Disney animation commentaries with the behind-the-scenes story of the film unraveling in a relatively screen-specific manner. Fortunately, this is one of the more lively examples of the usual approach. The participants, specifically the directors, have a charming repartee and a good sense of humour about the project. They also don’t spend an excess of energy patting backs. They give credit where it is due and move on. The most interesting aspects of the track pertain to the changes that were made to the film during production. It seems that there were two movies being made – a heavy version and a light version. This perhaps explains the uneven tone and also reveals the fact that the film could’ve been much, much worse. There’s also a nice bit where they discuss preparing themselves to defend the naughtiness of ‘Hellfire’ to the Disney heads, which proved unnecessary when their bosses loved the sequence.

The Making of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (28:00, SD) is a made for TV behind-the-scene featurette hosted by a super-obnoxious Jason Alexander. The whole thing is very fluffy, EPK material, but does eventually include some information about the adaptation process, casting, animation, computer enhancement, music, and design/art direction. These extras end with a multi-language reel (3:20, SD) and trailers for other Disney releases.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame II extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette/extended trailer hosted by Jennifer Love Hewitt (4:50, SD) and A Gargoyle’s Life: It’s Not Easy Being a Gargoyle (2:40, SD).

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Overall


Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame really does deserve a second look. It seems to have been largely forgotten in the pantheon of the studio’s ‘Second Renaissance,’ because it’s kind of weird and not very kid friendly – not because it’s genuinely bad. It is certainly uneven (the comedy doesn’t really work at all), but, at its heights, it stands proudly among the best the studio has to offer. The sequel, on the other hand, is possibly the worst STV Disney animated sequel I’ve ever seen. But you can just pretend that’s an extra on this two-movie Blu-ray set. Actual extras are a bit thin, but the A/V quality of the original film is top tier stuff.

* Note the images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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