The Hunchback of Notre Dame On DVD
Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Tarzan are the titles that invariably come up when the best modern-day Disney cel-animated features are discussed. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is almost never mentioned. It isn't as much pure fun as Aladdin. It was never nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, as was Beauty and the Beast. It didn't put nearly as many fannies into seats as The Lion King. And it lacked the smooth, almost 3D animation style of Tarzan. But it was easily a bigger, more adventurous risk than any of those other titles. In some important ways, it may be the best of the lot.
It certainly has the most literate, complex story. Credit here goes not to Disney but to Victor Hugo and his classic novel Notre Dame de Paris. The tragic story of the lonely, deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo, raised and cared for, barely, by the evil Frollo (an archdeacon in the book, a magistrate here), seems an unlikely subject for The Mouse House. But even given a few not so trivial changes from the original, including a happy (sort of) ending and the usual Disneyesque comic sidekicks (anthropomorphic stone gargoyles—really), it works a lot better than one might expect. In fact, it's possibly the most serious-minded Disney animated feature ever. While there's nothing that might disturb the kiddies (the clear sexual subtext of Frollo's lust for the gypsy Esmeralda should go well over their heads), this G-rated film might just as easily have been labeled PG.
The film is so serious, in fact, that Disney clearly felt compelled to insert comic relief. Some of it works, but some seems jarringly out of place. In particular, following an intense 15 minutes right in the middle of the film is a comic song that breaks the somber mood at a particularly inappropriate time. So does the slapstick inserted into the otherwise spectacular attack on the cathedral. But despite all such attempts to lighten things up, nothing can change the fact that this animated feature is aimed at an audience older than Disney's usual. I think most newcomers will be genuinely surprised at the richness of the film's tone.
While the artwork is not quite as fluid as that in later Disney features, such as Tarzan, the film contains some of the most stunning animated sequences you'll ever see, including the Festival of Fools, Frollo's showstopping song "Hellfire," Esmeralda's rescue by Quasimodo, and the storming of the cathedral. Computer-generated animation is also used here and there, and while it isn't always seamless (the computer work flows more smoothly than the hand-drawn art), it's always effective.
Despite its strong story and creative visuals, Hunchback would not work without Alan Menken's outstanding music. Both the instrumental/choral score itself and the songs (with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) contribute as much to the film as the characters, dialogue, and animation. And with one exception ("A Guy Like You," the comic song mentioned above), each song moves the plot forward.
Disney hasn't given Hunchback the deluxe treatment afforded some of its other animated titles. It's a single disc with limited extras (the laserdisc boxed set was far more extensive). There's a modest "Making of" featurette, a multi-language version of "A Guy Like You," a game and sing-along based on the song "Topsy Turvy," a trailer, and one truly good feature—a terrific commentary track by producer Don Hahn and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, the team also responsible for Beauty and the Beast and Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
My single complaint about the disc's authoring involves that most annoying feature of all recent Disney standard editions: the string of promotional trailers and other hype cluttering the beginning of the DVD. Please, guys, put this stuff only on the extras menu. Remember, this isn't videotape; most viewers will ultimately look at all the supplements, and if the trailers are interesting, they'll be seen. But having to claw your way through them every time you cue up the disc puts a viewer in a foul mood before even reaching the menu for the main feature.
The video transfer is sharp, colorful, and, thankfully, largely free of intrusive edge enhancement. But there's a problem: Most of the DVD is grainy, and it doesn't look like film grain. It's relatively subtle and didn't spoil my enjoyment of the film, but I noticed it immediately—possibly because this is not a problem typical of previous Disney animated features, which are usually pristine.
The only down side to the sound is the dialogue, which is, of course, pre-recorded and often sounds that way. But otherwise the soundtracks are terrific, whether you choose Dolby Digital or DTS. Particularly notable is how well the recording renders the ambiences of different spaces, particularly the vast expanses of the cathedral itself. The bass is also first-rate. And, perhaps most important because of its significance to the film, the music is nicely recorded, particularly the soft, delicate passages. Only the loudest bits don't come off quite so well, sounding a little flat and two-dimensional. (Disney's Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire now set the standards against which the recording quality of that studio's soundtrack music must be judged.)
All things considered, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of Disney's best animated efforts of the 1990s. Unless you're completely put off by the concept of a happy ending to this classic tragedy and (literally) animated, wisecracking gargoyles, it's not to be missed.
Alert: Don't confuse this release with the direct-to-video The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. Apart from the sequel's smooth, enhanced-widescreen transfer, clean if unspectacular sound, and bright colors, it's strictly kiddie-friendly storytelling with animation of Saturday-morning-cartoon quality (most of the work was done by Disney's Japan studios).