Buena Vista / 159 Minutes / 1996.2002 / Rated G / Street Date: March 12, 2013
After producing such mega-successful masterpieces as The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, where do you turn? For Disney, it was a time to take stock, after their Lion King follow-up Pocahontas was met with mixed reactions, and move on to the classic story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Definitely darker Disney material than most were used to, but fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your stance) Disney consciously decided to produce a PG-rated animated film, long a rarity for the family-friendly house that Walt built. But guess what? Hunchback inconceivably received a G rating from the MPAA, and despite its dark themes and often foreboding imagery, Hunchback may have been the last truly awesome production cranked out by Disney in years.
The story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is timeless and oft told, but here Disney manages to not desecrate the tale of Quasimodo despite the cute Disney creatures and too much sweetness and light. The film is able to play to both kids and adults, who will likely see far beneath the surface veneer. The topflight animation, the songs, the visual splendor is all here, but also real heart and emotion. Perhaps it is the vocal talent who gives it all such feeling? Tom Hulce is often extraordinary as the expressive Quasimodo, and Kevin Kline deliciously devious as Captain Phoebus. Even Demi Moore is well cast as the beautiful but caring Esmeralda. Co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise also make excellent use of the milieu, with mixture of hand-drawn and CGI animation captivating and gorgeous. The score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwarz is also one of the best, with memorable songs that are able to capture the spirit of the characters and not condescend to them, which is tough to do in an animated musical format.
Admittedly, despite such praise I'm not an instant fan of Disney films, yet I can say that this is my favorite animated flick ever. It is a shame it was not better received at the box office, but hopefully it continues to find a better life on vide, and now Blu-ray. It has everything so many animated films today lack; joy, heart, emotion, inspiration and a great story.
Hunchback IItakes place a few years after the original, much loved original (which was so dark and gothic, I'm still shocked it was only Rated G. Let's hear it for the power of the mouse!). However, the feel and tone of the original is largely gone within the first five minutes of Hunchback II. The town is preparing for the "Festival D'Amour," and Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is once again feeling very lonely. While Phoebus and Esmeralda (Kevin Kline and Demi Moore, respectively) try to comfort Quasi, he confines himself to the church towers where he feels most secure. His ever faithful sidekicks Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander) and Laverne (Jane Withers) encourage Quasi not to give up on true love. When the Cirque De Sarouch arrives, we are introduced to Madellaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt) the destined love of Quasi.
Unfortunately, Madellaine's cohorts have arrived with nothing but bad intentions in mind. Sarouch, voiced by Michael McKean, is the leader of the group and is quite the con man. Madellaine is practically his slave, while his circus is nothing but a front for a group of thieves. When robberies begin in town, Phoebus, being the sharp tack that he is, concludes that the circus performers are the ones to blame. Of course, he immediately stereotypes the whole troupe as thieves, much to the chagrin of his wife and Quasi, who's fallen hard for Madellaine.
Like most sequels, this works fine on its own, but there is much that is familiar yet inferior compared to the original. Most of the themes from the original film are rehashed, but the story points aren't as strong and Sarouch isn't menacing enough. Also of note is the casting of Haley Joel Osment as Zephyr, the son of Phoebus and Esmeralda. He really serves no purpose, outside of being Quasi's friend and an excuse to return to the catacombs from the original film. Despite the caliber of talent involved, this is a good but not great entry in the Disney animated canon.