"Hunchback" marks the return of the directors of "Beauty and the Beast," serving up another musical tale set in Paris. Up in the bell tower of Notre Dame lives Quasimodo, a timid deformed hunchback who lives in solitude, tended to by his master Judge Frollo, who repeatedly informs him of his hideousness and the cruelty of the world. Frollo seeks to rid the city of gypsies, free-spirited fops who continually cry fowl at the judge's leadership. During a big festival, Quasimodo sneaks out into the crowd, and is eventually humiliated and shamed, but finds compassion from a sensual gypsy Esmeralda. Over the course of time, she relies on him for safety from incarceration, and together with a rogue captain Phoebes, they work to keep the gypsies away from judgmental eyes. Meanwhile Frollo, driven mad with lust over Esmeralda, lays siege to Paris, vowing to burn it to the ground until he finds this heathen.
No question about it, "Hunchback" is one of Disney's more darker, dour films, and I love it. What's key here is that while the situations and conditions are very serious, the characters always are hopeful and human. Despite his condition and place in life, Quasimodo is not depressing and a downer, nor is he too unusually chipper, he's downtrodden but still hopeful and wishes for a better life. Disney's attempts to soften up the film is embodied in three wisecracking gargoyles who Quasi has to converse with in the tower. While I don't quite care for their jokes, nor the mood whiplash that usually occurs when they're on screen, I do like the implications that set in about their being, that they're most likely figments of Quasi's imagination. Scenes where he argues with them on whether to go to the festival or help Esmeralda are all going on in his head, although there are some scenes where it just seems like these gargoyles are real, like when they assist in the final battle in the city. ...although, maybe that's not the case, maybe Quasimodo is just defending the entirety of Notre Dame by himself! What a badass!
Anyway, the characters here feel stronger than any I've seen in the last few films. While I wouldn't go too far in praising them (Phoebes' wry wit to every line of dialogue grew tiresome, especially during his first meeting with Esmeralda as they spouted cliched line after cliched line), I still felt a connection to most of them, from the crazily jubilant head of the gypsies to the selfish and deviously mad Frollo, who is a contender for most evil Disney villain. Not only was he responsible for our hero's mother's death and almost DROWNED HIM AS A BABY, but he implements psychological torture upon him for his entire life, trying to keep him under his heel. His evil motives toward the beginning are a bit fogged, he demands strict punishment for all heathens, but lacks the compassion of the church, but once he becomes overcome with lust, that just pushes him over the edge. I mean hey, people do crazy stuff when they're horny. And yeah, this is a Disney movie. He has a whole song about his foul urges, which no kid will be able to understand, but I sure can. He blames his temptations on Esmeralda and her witchcraft, and plans to kill her to get his salvation. His insane motives are clear, and he goes absolutely crazy at the end, throwing the archdeacon down some stairs and trying to stab Quasimodo to death. The best Disney villains are the ones who go balls-to-the-wall nuts, and Frollo's among the best. He even has an amazing death, where he quite literally falls to his death in a pit of hellfire.
As should have been made clear, this movie deals with some insanely mature subject matter for a Disney film, and I loved that it didn't hold back. The serious tone is strong throughout, despite the gargoyles and Esmeralda's pet goat providing comic relief, and also the songs. Speaking of, this one's just as effective musically as "Beauty and the Beast," if not better. A lot of the first half of the film is told mostly through song, it seemed, with all the elements being set up very well. The songs don't seem as catchy as the classic Disney songs, but their motifs have become stuck in my head and are really good. They meld well within the story, and aren't really out of place. Everything the movie was trying to be seemed to really work, as a musical, a drama, and a character study of a man locked away learning to live in the world out there.
Verdict? I feel "Hunchback" isn't as fondly remembered as the others in the Renaissance, but it really really should be. It's my favorite post-Walt film, bar none. Breaking away from the lighter tones with reckless abandon, Disney crafted a serious dramatic musical that really really works. It looks great, it sounds great, it IS great. Why don't people like this one, dammit! If you haven't seen it in a while, as I had, I highly recommend it. At least see it for creepy Frollo. Man, is that guy creepy.