The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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Bob Smithouser

Movie Review

It’s one thing for parents to play guessing games with children. It’s quite another for The Walt Disney Co. to play guessing games with families. But that’s precisely what the media giant has done in recent years by making assumptions about the values, standards and philosophies mainstream families are willing to embrace in the name of “entertainment.”

Some of those hunches have drawn significant criticism—even organized boycotts. For example, Disney figured loyal fans would forgive and forget its acquisition of salacious Miramax Films (responsible for Kids, Priest and Pulp Fiction). The company also wagered that customers wouldn’t object to its policy of extending health benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees. Such decisions have signaled a changing of the guard at the Magic Kingdom. And the stakes continue to rise as Disney gambles with its once snow white reputation.

The burden of this summer’s biggest hunch falls squarely on the shoulders of a disfigured bell ringer named Quasimodo. Much too grim and sexually preoccupied for small children, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has intentionally tested the boundaries of traditional Disney fare with its adaptation of Victor Hugo’s gothic novel. A dark, sultry side makes Quasimodo’s story only quasi-appropriate for youngsters.

Locked away in a cathedral bell tower by the pious, Gypsy-hating Judge Frollo, the kindhearted hunchback longs to walk among peasants and taste a life he can only observe from above. But circumstances thrust Quasi-modo into the cruel streets of Paris, introducing him to new friends and adventures outside of his stone sanctuary.

To the film’s credit, Hunchback is stylishly animated and richly textured with tunes reminiscent of classic musicals such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. It also explores issues including the nature of love, freedom, inner beauty and religious faith.

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from its creators’ own urge to escape the cathedral-like confines of G-rated convention. No longer content to simply craft power-hungry baddies, the storytellers explore Frollo’s sexual frustrations—specifically his diabolical lust for the curvaciously drawn Esmeralda.

The villain confronts his demons in “Hellfire,” a song about sin and temptation reinforced by seductive images of a woman dancing amid flames. Frollo pledges to either possess Esmeralda or destroy her. Composer Alan Menken told USA Today, “It really tests the limits of what we can get away with. We have Frollo sing the church liturgy but also sing of twisted sexual fantasies.”

“Esmeralda is awfully provocative,” actor Jason Alexander (the voice of a gargoyle) said. 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.

Also the parent of a preschooler, Focus on the Family’s manager of Youth Culture, Amy Stephens, told Plugged In, “This is not a children’s film, which makes many of the product tie-ins and promotional efforts aimed at little ones inappropriate and irresponsible.”

Several intense scenes provide further cause for concern, including Quasimodo’s mother’s death and attempts at the following: infanticide, stabbings, hangings, beheadings and burning people alive. Children may also be disturbed by the hunchback’s severe public humiliation.

Is this Hunchback a hideous monster? Not entirely. One heartwarming scene finds Esmeralda praying selflessly on behalf of the world’s outcasts. But such moments are overshadowed by simmering passions, a shapely heroine and dark elements likely to upset young viewers—and disappoint discerning adults.

An examination of Disney’s recent evolution reveals a troubling trend as multifaceted as the stained glass in Notre Dame’s majestic cathedral. The studio is growing up. It’s moving on. As one reporter said, “The training wheels are off.” And Disney is bargaining that parents won’t object to the ways Walt’s heirs are tampering with the innocence of children. A dangerous hunch.

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Bob Smithouser