tek's rating:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (G)
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Caution: Spoilers!

Well, this is of course based on the novel by Victor Hugo, which I'm afraid I haven't read. I definitely should get to that, someday. This being a Disneyfied version, of course there are going to be any number of differences from the source material (which, for example, I'm guessing didn't have talking gargoyles as comic relief). Nevertheless, for a Disney movie, it's pretty dark, and I really think it should have been rated PG, rather than G. There are things which little kids could find scary, as well as things that will go over their heads. There's murder, lust, racism, and the antagonist even deals with some inner demons that I really don't think the kids will comprehend. But of course, there's also some nice animation, humor, and decent music. (Generally speaking I didn't find the music particularly memorable, but it was decent as a storytelling device, and sounded alright, and it had a kind of Broadway feel about it.)

Anyway. The movie is set in like the 15th century, in Paris. It starts with a puppeteer (whose name was Clopin, though I never heard that in the film) telling a story to a group of children. The story starts 20 years earlier, when a few gypsies were coming to Paris, where they were not welcome. They were ambushed by soldiers under the command of Judge Frollo, who has a deep hatred of gypsies. One of them, a woman carrying a small bundle, runs away from Frollo, but he catches her, kills her, and takes the bundle, which he had assumed contained stolen goods. It turned out to contain a baby, though it was deformed, and he planned to toss it down a well to drown it. But he was stopped by the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, who ordered Frollo to raise the child as his own, to atone for the sin of murdering an innocent woman just outside the cathedral. Frollo reluctantly agreed, but insisted that the child live in Notre Dame, where he would occasionally visit him.

The story then flashes forward 20 years. The baby is now a young man named Quasimodo (which means "half formed"), who is the cathedral's bell-ringer. He's never left the cathedral, and generally stays in the bell tower. His only friends are three gargoyles named Hugo (Jason Alexander), Victor, and Laverne, who come to life only when Quasimodo is alone. He watches events in the outside world, and wishes he could be a part of society, but knows everyone would think him a monster- because that's what his master, Frollo, has always told him. Frollo also said the world was an evil place, and people would surely hurt Quasimodo if he left the tower. (This whole thing about spending one's whole life in a tower and wanting to go out into the world, but being afraid because of what one's guardian told them, rather reminded me of Tangled, a newer Disney movie which I picked up about the same time as this one, though I watched that maybe a couple months before this. There are perhaps some other similarities between the movies, but I won't get into it.) Quasimodo particularly wants to leave on the day of the Festival of Fools, which his gargoyle friends encourage him to do.

Meanwhile, there's a soldier named Phoebus (Kevin Kline), who has been recalled from the war to serve as the Captain of the Guard, under Frollo. When we first meet him, he ends up protecting a gypsy woman named Esmeralda (Demi Moore) from a couple of Frollo's thuggish guards. Later, when Quasimodo goes out to enjoy the festival, he also meets Esmeralda, who at first thinks he's wearing a mask, because of his deformed face. Soon after that, Esmeralda performs a seductive dance for the crowd, and then Clopin (who appears to be a sort of master of ceremonies for the festival) crowns Quasimodo king of the fools. At first this a good thing, but then some guards start throwing things like tomatoes and eggs at him, and they end up tying him down. Esmeralda frees him, in direct defiance of Judge Frollo, so she's forced to run away, while a reluctant Phoebus is ordered to catch her.

Phoebus finally confronts her inside Notre Dame, but when Frollo arrives, he tells the judge that Esmeralda claimed the right of sanctuary, so they can't take her away. But Frollo orders guards to watch every entrance, so that she could not escape, thus making the cathedral a kind of prison for her. However, Quasimodo later helps her escape, and she promises to return and visit him. She also gives him a pendant which she says would lead him to the Court of Miracles, the hiding place of the gypsies within Paris, which Frollo has been searching for for many years. She'd like Quasimodo to leave Notre Dame with her, but he still believes it's the only place he belongs.

When Frollo learns that Esmeralda has escaped from the cathedral, he starts a massive hunt for her. We learn that he is driven by conflicting emotions. While he considers himself a man of great purity, he realizes he has strong lustful feelings for Esmeralda. Earlier, we had heard him mention witchcraft apparently because of a vanishing act the gypsy had performed, but now we find that he really thinks she's a witch because obviously (from his twisted perspective) a man like him couldn't be having feelings like this unless she had cast a spell on him. So he wants her to die, to put an end to the feelings he's having, though he'd let her live if she'd agree to be his.

Eventually, Phoebus can no longer go along with the evil orders Frollo is giving him, so Frollo orders him killed for insubordination. However, Esmeralda rescues him and takes him to Notre Dame, to hide from Frollo. (Which seems a bit odd, since Frollo goes there on a regular basis, but whatever.) Frollo does in fact show up, and tells Quasimodo that he's located the Court of Miracles, and will attack it at dawn. Phoebus, who overheard the conversation, later decides to go search for the Court himself, to warn the gypsies. Quasimodo is reluctant, but finally decides to join him, and realizes that the pendant Esmeralda had given him is actually a map of the city.

Okay, that's enough spoilers, I won't say any more about what happens (though I do think some of it could easily be guessed). Um... so anyway... it's a decent movie. I like the characters (even the villain was interesting), and I liked the basic story. I have mixed feelings about the love triangle... clearly, Quasimodo and Phoebus both loved Esmeralda, and they're both good guys, and she cared for both of them, though I got no indication that she ever thought of Quasimodo as even potentially more than a friend. Nor do I think she suspected he might feel anything more than friendship for her. So, as nice as she is, for being the first person to accept him... well, this story ain't exactly Shrek. Also I should say, even though there were times that I found the gargoyles reasonably amusing, most of the time I just found them a superfluous, pandering, silly addition, and the movie probably would, on balance, have been better off without them. Also, in spite of all the darkness in the movie, it does have a typical Disney happy ending. Which is okay, but I think it'd be nice for movies to occasionally have a less than happy ending, and this would've been an ideal choice for such a thing. But whatever.

There's a direct-to-video sequel, which I have no intention of ever seeing, but I suppose I should at least mention that it exists.


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