SOME NINE MOVIE VERSIONS OF The Hunchback of Notre Dame precede Disney's animated musical, a testimony to the enduring power of Victor Hugo's Quasimodo--the sine qua non of outcasts and the spiritual granddaddy of malformed misfits from the Phantom of the Opera to the Elephant Man. Whether it was Lon Chaney, Charles Laughton or Anthony Hopkins hunkering down into the bell ringer's archetypal stoop, a huge part of the appeal of these movies was our lust for grotesque cosmetics, our delight in seeing a famous physiognomy twisted into a horrifically sympathetic visage.
That transformation is not a kick animation can duplicate. Here it's all up to the animators' imaginations, and unfortunately their youthful hunchback (voice of Tom Hulce) is a tad pallid. This Disneyfied Quasimodo is affectionately dubbed Quasi, and the change reflects his diminished stature as a tragic hero. In fact, there's no tragic end in store for the saintly misfit, who now rates a happy ending. He may not get the girl, but he discovers Self-Esteem.
Well, why not? This Broadway-style "Hunchback" is designed to be fun for the whole family, and you can see Team Disney struggling to balance the darkness of the tale with some jolly beams of light. The result, from the producer (Don Hahn), the directors (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise) and the composer (Alan Menken, working with lyricist Stephen Schwartz) who brought you "Beauty and the Beast," doesn't come up to that beauty, but its fleet 86 minutes are far more gripping than the soporifically well-intentioned "Pocahontas."
The Disney animation philosophy has always been something for everyone: here it makes for leaps in tone as wildly eclectic as the Menken score, which ranges from choral religiosity to "Chorus Line" kickaboom. On the dark side, you have the villain Judge Claude Frollo, a pious hypocrite whose persecution of the Gypsies of 15th-century Paris can't help calling to mind the Nazis' roundup of the Jews, and whose guilt-racked lust for the Gypsy girl Esmeralda (spoken by Demi Moore, sung by Heidi Mollenhauer) will no doubt require explications to perplexed 6-year-olds. On the chipper side, the cathedral's stone gargoyles have been turned into Quasi's vaudevillian companions Victor, Hugo and Laverne, whose musical antics qualify as hardshoe. Phoebus, the good-guy soldier who defends Esmeralda and Quasi against the ruthless Frollo, becomes a blond hunk with a saving sense of humor (Kevin Kline does the vocal honors). He's the sort of guy who says to his horse "Achilles, heel." Victor Hugo might have been startled by these emendations, but then he never had to open in a thousand multiplexes.