The worst thing about "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is its advertising campaign. The movie is based on "Notre Dame de Paris," a Victor Hugo novel fraught with historical complexity and a deep sense of human tragedy. Is a slogan like "Come join the party" the best Walt Disney Pictures could dream up for it?
Disney's version is different, of course, transforming Hugo's resonant book into a G-rated musical that really is more like a party than a cultural experience.
Literary purists will shudder at change after change - the brooding gargoyles turned into wise-cracking comedians; the illicit Court of Miracles turned into a hangout for lovable misfits; the absence or unrecognizability of many key characters; and above all, the morphing of tormented Quasimodo into cute little Quasi, who'd be a great candidate for the Seven Dwarfs if he'd just get over that shyness problem of his.
Then again, these changes will be welcome news for people seeking family-friendly entertainment in this violence-filled summer season. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" has its own excesses of violence that stretch the G rating further than usual. But taken on its own terms, it's a worthy addition to the growing list of popular Disney cartoons. Its story may have little to do with Hugo, but it provides fine opportunities for an army of animators who show genuine enthusiasm for the pictorial possibilities of medieval Paris and its motley inhabitants.
The tale centers on Quasi, a funny-looking bell ringer who's forbidden to leave Notre Dame by orders from Frollo, his sour old guardian. Life is dull when you're stuck in a cathedral all the time, but Quasi takes comfort in his friends - the bells, birds, and gargoyles of his lofty tower - and dreams of leaving his perch to attend the Festival of Fools that captivates Paris once a year.
Finally he yields to temptation and sneaks down to join the party. (Maybe that slogan does make sense!) There he's promptly discovered and humiliated in full view of a jeering crowd. But he also meets the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, and that's enough to make the whole episode practically a picnic for him. The rest of the film revolves around Quasi's friendship with Esmeralda, her love for a handsome soldier named Phoebus, and their battle with Frollo, the gypsy-hating hypocrite whose tyranny has ill consequences for the whole city.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, whose previous collaboration was "Beauty and the Beast," still the best Disney animation of the '90s. The most striking touch they bring to the new picture is its atmospheric portrait of city life in the 15th century, complete with finely rendered views of Paris's claustrophobic streets, teeming public squares and varied architecture.
The musical numbers by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz are also perky, even if the Disney formula is growing too familiar by now. The dialogue is delivered by a good-natured cast including Tom Hulce as Quasi, Demi Moore as Esmeralda, and Kevin Kline as Phoebus.
Despite its good points and the G rating it proudly displays, parents should be warned that some scenes may be much too intense or violent for young children, especially when all-out war erupts near the end of the movie. This may limit the picture's popularity with families, just as its countless liberties with the classic "Notre Dame de Paris" will turn off many Hugo admirers. Others should have a good time with Quasi and his friends, though, and the Disney folks can take satisfaction in another sure-fire hit.
* 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' has a G rating but may be much too violent and intense for younger children.