You expect to be freaked by the monstrous bell-ringer Quasimodo of Victor Hugo’s tragic 1831 novel. Surprise! He’s now merely a lumpish imp voiced by Tom Hulce at his bubbly Amadeus best. Hugo’s tale of a hideous hermit’s unrequited love for the Gypsy Esmeralda is now an animated Disney musical with dancing gargoyles and a hunchback with a song in his heart. No heavy metal like Metallica’s Poor Twisted Me. The songs, from two old Disney hands, composer Alan Menkin and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, run to pablum. Cynics call the film Pocabontas With a Hump.
Adding to the film’s split personality is Demi Moore. As the model and speaking voice for Esmeralda, she is more, er, animated than she was in Disney’s live-action Scarlet Letter. But Quasi responds to her kindness, not her bod. Her two lusty men are hunky Phoebus (voiced by Kevin Kline) and depraved Judge Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay). Get ready to cover kids’ ears during Frollo’s S&M soliloquies. “I imagine a rope around your neck,” he says, breathing hotly on her back. “I know what you imagine,” she sniffs in revulsion.
In Moore’s other summer film, the adult-themed Striptease, the scene in which a twisted pol (Burt Reynolds) threatens to rape her at knife point had to be re-shot to appease shocked test audiences. It’s pure Hollyweird. A G-rated cartoon allows Moore to be stalked by a pervert, but the R-rated Striptease does not. Huh?
n’t get me wrong: I admired much of Hunchback, notably the enthralling animation that catches Notre Dame in light and shadow and the teeming Paris streets that Quasi watches from his perch. But the jarring shifts in tone — chirpy to grim and back again — can lead to bizarre distractions. When Quasi, in his church sanctuary, pours scalding oil from huge pots onto the French mob, I read it as studio revenge for the failure of EuroDisney.
At its best the film achieves a sweeping grandeur. The problem for Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who also co-directed Beauty and the Beast, is turning a tale of violent love and death into a family film with a happy ending. The hunchback dies in the novel. In the definitive 1939 film with a scarily brilliant Charles Laughton, Quasimodo is alone in his tower in a shot that predates the haunting climax of Tim Burton’s Batman. The new Hunchback sends Quasi out into the world as a useful and beloved citizen. No go. Some freaks earn their places in the shadows.