The Hunchback of Notre Dame
directed by Gary
Trousdale & Kirk Wise
(Disney, 1996)

The Hunchback
directed by Peter Medak
(TNT, 1997)

It's hard to imagine two more different interpretations of the same source material.

The Hunchback, made for television, isn't entirely true to the novel by Victor Hugo, but it's a poignant, passionate interpretation that boasts a trio of incredible performances. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, made to sell lunchboxes and action figures, dismisses the novel entirely, sacrificing the power of the story for a package of cute, cuddly and happy.

The story deals with the misshapen bellringer of a 15th-century Parisian cathedral, a beautiful gypsy dancer and the fallen church leader who desires her. Often depicted as a horror, it is truly a tragedy of magnificent proportions.

Mandy Patinkin is the focal point of The Hunchback. The handsome actor and singer is entirely hidden behind his grotesque makeup, but the heartbreaking level of emotion Patinkin pours through his mask and putty is astonishing to see.

Emotions dance to the beat of Patinkin's drum as we share his sheer joy at being crowned King of the Fools during a city celebration; the acclaim of the crowd is in part mocking, but that doesn't stop Quasimodo from wringing pure delight from a moment's brief acceptance. Then try to keep a dry eye as the hunchback is whipped for a crime he didn't commit; there is shock and betrayal more than pain here, and a desperate cry for water ... but it's his genuine smile when he sees his master, followed by utter misery when his master turns away, that really twists the heartstrings.

Don't expect even a hint of Patinkin's magical voice in this movie. It is buried deep beneath the tortured croak of the hunchback. His makeup, which entirely transforms the actor's head and body, is excellent.

Richard Harris supplies brooding presence as Dom Frollo, the conflicted archdeacon whose faith is severely tested -- and fails. Not evil, he is not as good as he once believed, and his argument for the banning of printed books is just plain scary. Harris's Frollo takes no joy from life, and by movie's end you'll find yourself pitying, not hating, this misguided villain.

Salma Hayek is both sultry and compassionate as Esmeralda, the dancing gypsy who inflames just about every male she meets. The object of Frollo's dark lust, she is also loved by Quasimodo, to whom she was kind, and activist/orator Gringoire (Edward Atterton). (The subplot between Esmeralda and Phoebus, captain of the guard, is dropped for brevity in this version.)

While the conclusion is somewhat lighter than Hugo's, it remains plenty dark. Hunchback is an emotional rollercoaster, and it's a shame Patinkin didn't receive the kudos for this effort that he deserved. This should be a classic, and I hope the powers that be release it soon on DVD. (Afterword: They did. Check it out.)

Now, the cartoon. First, let me say that I'm typically a fan of Disney animation (to my wife's eternal chagrin and my children's delight), but I still cast a fairly critical eye of the cartoon mogul's interpretation of classic material. While I don't mind a certain degree of revisionism (and I even liked the happy-ending retelling of The Little Mermaid), this takes it just a bit -- OK, a lot -- too far.

Sure, Quasimodo is still deformed, but now he's cute, too. His tortured voice has been replaced by the dulcet tones of actor Tom Hulce (Amadeus). Disney's Quasimodo is an acrobat of Olympics-caliber skill, with strength that exceeds any conventional weightlifter. And, far from being a lonely, isolated creature at the top of the belltower, he now has a close circle of friends; they may be stone gargoyles (silly and slapsticky, voiced by Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough and Mary Wickes), but that doesn't stop them from being chatty and supportive, and even from helping Quasi repel the king's men who seek to recapture Esmeralda.

Esmeralda, voiced by Demi Moore, is now a high-spirited trickster and a poster girl for feminism in medieval France. (My wife takes particular exception to her sensual pole dance at the Festival of Fools; this is, after all, a kids' flick.)

Frollo is now a civic judge with armies at his disposal; perhaps Disney balked at making a man of the church the film's villain. And, far from tormented and torn between right and wrong, this Frollo (Tony Jay) is outright evil, malicious and wearing a constant sneer. Phoebus, the captain of the guard with a conscience and the hots for Esmeralda, rounds out the cast; expertly voiced by Kevin Klein, his dry wit is the source for most of the movie's genuine laughs.

Visually, the movie boasts some stunning vistas. The architecture of Paris, particularly the cathedral itself, is dramatic, rich and highly detailed -- although the awesome spectacle of molten lead pouring from the cathedral like Niagara Falls becomes laughable when you realize this vast quantity of hot death comes from a single boiling pot.

The music, seeking to equal the heights of a Broadway or London stage production, reaches too high. There's nothing memorable here, a far cry from earlier Disney soundtracks.

And, while there is certainly an obvious message of acceptance for young viewers, the movie works too hard to come up with a happy ending that must have left the late Victor Hugo writhing in his grave.

At the final tally, Disney's version is OK, so far as animated, watered-down classics set to music go, but for a stirring look at the wretched face and gentle soul of the hunchback, Mandy Patinkin has it down pat.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 18 September 2004

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