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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Monday, May 28, 2012

“After All, We’re Only Made Out Of Stone. We Just Thought Maybe You Were Made Of Something Stronger.”

DISCLAIMER:  I’ve never felt a need to write one of these before, but the fact that it’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame changes everything.  Today’s discussion on Waking Snow White will veer slightly into some adult topics, and since I know that there are younger readers in my audience, I felt a need to issue a warning.  As usual, I will do my utmost to keep the discussion as civil, appropriate, and professional as possible, but there’s no way to properly discuss Hunchback without also discussing religion, violence, and pole dancing, so for the first time in Waking Snow White history, reader discretion is advised.  

First and foremost, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is easily one of the ballsiest Disney animated films ever made.  I don’t know if it is the absolute ballsiest Disney film ever; for me, that title belongs to either this film or Fantasia, I’m torn between the two.  I do know that I wouldn’t recommend parents showing this movie to their kids until their children are at least ten or eleven, which is about how old I was when I first saw Hunchback.  Why do I say that?  Because The Hunchback of Notre Dame contains attempted infanticide, murder of human characters, torture, frequent mentions of Hell, religious hypocrisy, implied profanity, prejudice, social injustice, the first use of the word “damnation” in a Disney film, and open references to sex.  It earned a G rating.
Wearing this contact lens permanently damaged Lon Chaney's vision.
            What do you expect to happen when Disney attempts to adapt a Victor Hugo novel into an animated family film?  I was eleven years old when this movie came out, long before I had read any of Victor Hugo’s work, but even then I distinctly remember thinking, “They thought it was a good idea to make that book into a Disney movie? Really?”  Even without having read the book, I was familiar with the title for good reason: The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an incredibly famous story that has seen its share of film adaptations from Hollywood long before Disney placed a pair of mouse ears on its hump.  The most famous examples of Hunchback’s film adaptations include a Universal silent film starring the legendary “man of a thousand faces,” Lon Chaney, as Quasimodo. This was eventually followed by a black and white “talkie” released in 1939 featuring Charles Laughton in the title role, and a nineteen year old Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. 

            The Hunchback of Notre Dame earned its pair of adamantium cojones back when it was first written.  Notre-Dame de Paris was born when Victor Hugo visited the famous Parisian cathedral and spotted the Latin word “fatum,” (which means “fate”) carved deep into a stone there.  He was fascinated by this rather melancholy message and agonized over its origin.  Suffice to say, “fate” is a significant theme in the story of Notre-Dame de Paris and almost all of its subsequent film, television, and stage adaptations. Almost all of the controversial content that I listed in the introductory paragraph is present in the original book.
            One might be tempted to ask, “Come on, is it even possible for a Disney animated film to be that controversial?”  Short answer: yes.  Long answer: in the first six minutes and twenty five seconds of the film, a race of people are unfairly prejudiced against, a mother is murdered in cold blood for trying to protect her infant child, said child is almost murdered as well, and the fate of immortal souls are discussed.  Again, I must emphasize that The Hunchback of Notre Dame managed to pass through MPAA scrutiny with a G rating.  Case in point, I have heard through various, possibly unreliable sources that Jason Alexander did not bring his own children to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame because of the dark and somewhat sexual content the film contained.  While I can’t prove if that is true, I can say one thing that is absolutely fact: Esmeralda pole dances in this film.  You don’t believe me?  Allow me to present the two following videos for comparative purposes.  First is a video of the scene in question.  Please note the rather suggestive pose Esmeralda adopts at the 2:52 mark as she makes creative use of the pole end of a spear.

            Now watch this video of the winner of Miss Pole Dance World from 2008.  WARNING: While this video does not contain any graphic sexual content or any nudity whatsoever, it does prominently feature a scantily clad woman dancing around a pole, so I wouldn’t exactly call it work place or school safe, so watch at your own discretion in the privacy of your own home, please.

            … Okay, so Esmeralda wasn’t doing that in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but you get my point.  The similarities are there.  The rather lewd hollering and whistles made by the men in the crowd as they watched Esmeralda dance felt more appropriate for a bachelor party, rather than a public festival in which children were attending.  The gents (including Pheobus!) even toss money at her!  However, no proper discussion about controversial content where The Hunchback of Notre Dame is concerned would be complete without talking about “Hellfire.”

            You remember that list of controversial ideas within The Hunchback of Notre Dame that I mentioned in the first paragraph?  “Hellfire” alone contains five of them: murder of human characters, frequent mentions of Hell, religious hypocrisy, prejudice, and open references to sex.  In other words, this one scene is possibly the darkest, most controversial scene in the history of Disney animation.  Much like “God Help the Outcasts,” “Hellfire” is a prayer set to music, as Frollo implores to Maria for control of these new lustful feelings he feels towards a certain beautiful gypsy.  Unlike “God Help the Outcasts,” “Hellfire” is not an endearing song that beseeches to God for the wrongs of the world to be righted. 
            Instead, “Hellfire” acts as Frollo’s soliloquy of the desire he feels for Esmeralda.  The fact that the song centers on an elderly, supposedly pious man lusting after a much younger woman is creepy enough on its own, but also discussed is how Frollo plots to offer Esmeralda an incredibly twisted ultimatum: either choose to be “saved” by Frollo, or burn in Hell.  So Esmeralda’s choices were to be the sex puppet of an eldritch old man or be burned at the stake.  I would have chosen the fire too.
            Adding yet another layer of “holy crap, I can’t believe they got away with that” to the scene is the frequent use of vivid Hell imagery.  The Gregorian chanting and church choir harmonies are heard throughout the song from start to finish, with the classic Latin phrase “mea culpa” (“my fault”) being used the most prominently.  The Hellish imagery is quite intense for a G film, and the implied imagery of holy judgment most definitely resonates with the audience long after the film is over.  In an unforgettable visual message, the filmmakers are conveying to the audience the state of a rather twisted man’s soul and the judgment that awaits him. 
With all of this talk about Hell, judgment and demons, we are brought to the figure of the most controversial topic in the history of humankind: God.  In today’s ultra-P.C. societal climate, discussing any kind of religion in a modern family film is a big, fat no-no.  There were frequent mentions of God and the Bible in Disney’s early films; some characters like Snow White and Penny from The Rescuers were even shown on their knees saying their prayers before bed.  Aside from the mentions of Islam in Aladdin, most modern Disney animated films do their utmost to avoid the subject of religion out of fear of offending their potential audiences.  That being said, it’s downright impossible to set a movie in and around a very famous cathedral and not have the topic of God pop up.
             The subject of God doesn’t just occur once and by accident in this film, though.  Besides the near constant presence of Notre Dame itself, Gregorian chants are frequently heard throughout the film’s score and songs, most of the film’s major themes deal directly with the core principles of Christianity, and then there’s that little song called “God Help the Outcasts,” which is a prayer set to music.  On the surface, it’s a beautifully crafted song—musically, lyrically, and vocally.  There’s so many more layers to it though, some that don’t become readily prevalent to an audience member until perhaps they are older and experience much of what “God Help the Outcasts” is about for themselves. 

            A part of me is shocked that this song was okayed by the Disney suits, but regardless, I’m glad that it was because this, “Out There,” and “The Bells of Notre Dame (Reprise)” are my favorite pieces of music to come out of this film.  When listening closely to the lyrics, some of the most controversial ideas in the entire film are found within this one song.  The very first lyrics are, “I don’t know if You can hear me / Or if You’re even there.”  So right off the bat, Esmeralda is questioning whether or not God even exists.  It’s one thing to include God in a family film; it’s another thing entirely for a family film to question His existence.  Given the amount of hardship and prejudice Esmeralda has endured, it makes sense that her faith in a higher power would be shaky at best.
            But the song doesn’t end there.  She keeps singing: “Yes, I know I’m just an outcast / I shouldn’t speak to You / Still I see Your face and wonder / Were You once an outcast too?”  It’s incredibly sad that Esmeralda doesn’t believe herself deserving of an audience with God, which is what is being said here.  More than that, though, is the song reminding the audience that Jesus himself was treated as an outcast.  This is the real crux of the song, because it’s suddenly not about the plight of the gypsies anymore. 
            The song isn’t called, “God Help the Gypsies,” it’s called “God Help the Outcasts.”  That’s an important distinction to make, because it doesn’t limit the scope of the song to just this film.  There’s a message to be taken away by the audience here and it’s important that we discuss it thoroughly.  Esmeralda is saying a prayer for all those who have been treated as outcasts by society.  This is contrasted sharply by the other parishioners who are being rather selfish with what they pray for (“I ask for wealth / I ask for fame / I ask for glory to shine on my name”).  This shines a very positive light on Esmeralda, as she continues to pray for the good of her people and anyone else among “the poor and down-trod.”
            The final lyric is also the most important one: “I thought we all were / The children of God / God help the outcasts / Children of God.”  So much humanity is contained within this simple phrase.  In sixteen words, Esmeralda reminds the audience that every last human being on the planet is a child of God, and therefore also manages to call out the hypocrisy of those who believe otherwise.  Regardless of superficial differences, all humans are the children of God.  “God Help the Outcasts” is to The Hunchback of Notre Dame what “Part of Your World” was to The Little Mermaid.  The crux of the film’s message rests on its shoulders and the film wouldn’t be the same without it.
            No character better sums up the plight of the outcast than Quasimodo.  Deformed from birth and locked away for all of his life, Quasimodo has spent his whole existence being treated like Frollo’s dirty little secret.  Quasimodo definitely falls into the underdog category of Disney themes, and I would say comes third only to Dumbo and Cinderella in terms of outcast underdog characters the audience responds with and roots for.  Quasimodo is an outcast of Paris society based entirely on his physical appearance, making his plight all the more challenging.  After all, this story did occur in a time before plastic surgery, so it’s not like he can simply change the way he looks.  Quasimodo spends the film proving to the world that beneath his appearance is a good man; a goal which is not easily met without a considerable amount of hardship.
            The scene in which the citizens of Paris torture Quasimodo is absolutely heartbreaking, and very difficult for me personally to watch.  Before I viewed it for the blog, I had not watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame for several years because of how much that one scene bothers me.  I’m not trying to hold a pity party in which someone plays a really tiny violin, but there have been times in my life in which I have been an outcast and have been treated unfairly by people who were just out to be cruel.  I know I’m not the only person on the planet who has felt that way at some point in their lives, so I reckon there are a fair few people who become unsettled watching the crowd tie Quasimodo down and laugh at his pain and humiliation.  I don’t even like the song “Topsy Turvy,” because I know what happens after that particular piece of music ends.  Though Quasimodo’s appearance is quite distinctive, the audience still finds themselves identifying with and projecting themselves onto Quasimodo.
            There’s one aspect of Quasimodo’s appearance that I would like to pause on: his hair.  I know it’s kind of hard to miss given his other more distracting traits, but Quasimodo is only one of three title characters who are males with red hair.  Ginger pointed this out to me, which isn’t surprising considering that she’s a redhead herself, so she notices other redheads with a Spider-Man like sixth sense.  I ran through the list of Disney animated films to take stock of other prominent male redheads, and I noticed a trend: Disney redheaded men are mostly brutes or occasionally outsiders.  Lampwick in Pinocchio was a total punk, and the little boy who mocked Dumbo’s large ears was even less charming than Lampwick. Casey in the “Casey at the Bat” segment of Make Mine Music was praised for his physical prowess as a baseball player. The giant in Fun and Fancy Free was definitely a brute (who also was fond of pink bunny rabbits). Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee were not particularly brutish or outcast, but they are very stocky in their build. Peter Pan is the boy who doesn’t belong because he won’t grow up.  Sir Kay from The Sword in the Stone is the ultimate Disney brute. Finally, Thomas in Pocahontas was an outsider in that he was a boy trying to navigate through a man’s world.  Quasimodo does possess both qualities: his strength is immense and he is very much the definition of an outsider. 
How did redheads earn such a reputation around Disney Animation?  Red hair has a long history of being a designator of people who are different.  The Malleus Meleficarum, the infamous guide to hunting witches written in 1486 (I’m sure Frollo owns a well-read, earmarked copy) stated that red hair and green eyes were thought to be a sign of a witch, werewolf, or vampire.  There’s also the popular phrase “red-headed step-child,” which is commonly used to designate someone as an outsider.  It’s interesting that both Quasimodo and the title hero of the film that immediately follows this one, Hercules, have red hair.  Both of them are on complete opposite ends of the appearance scale (Quasimodo is physically deformed, whereas Hercules is the pinnacle of physical perfection), and yet both of them have in common the fact that neither of them are accepted by society at the start of their respective films and both learn that good men are defined by the conviction in their hearts.
Though physically unattractive, Quasimodo (much like another title character from an earlier a Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale film) has a kind and gentle manner that only his gargoyle companions, Esmeralda, and the birds recognize and appreciate.  Amadeus actor Tom Hulce gave Quasimodo’s voice those qualities as well as a quiet strength that arises in full force during the film’s climax, while James Baxter had the challenge of granting a physically ugly character a beautiful spirit.  The shining moment of both of these artists is “Out There”.   In the grand tradition of the Disney Wish song, “Out There” bares Quasimodo’s heart to the audience. 

Much like Jodi Benson did for “Part of Your World,” Tom Hulce’s vocal performance gives the song most of its power and depth.  His singing voice fascinates me.  When he first starts singing, his voice is so soft and almost sounds as though it is about to break, something Disney had not attempted before with a leading male while he sings.  As “Out There” progresses, Hulce’s voice grows stronger, betraying his Broadway roots when he caps the song with one of the finest belts I’ve ever heard.  Given the way Hulce performed “Out There,” he is vocally mirroring Quasimodo’s character arc: Quasimodo begins the film soft, quiet, unsure, and not confidant at all, but as the story progresses, he grows stronger.
Of course, Baxter’s animation of Quasimodo during the moments in which his character is neither speaking nor singing are among the film’s most powerful:  Frollo jerking Quasimodo’s chin up so that he looks at him straight in the eye and the single tear he sheds when he believes that he has found acceptance at last when he is crowned the king of fools (a title that takes on a layer of cruel irony given what happens to Quasimodo just a few moments after he is crowned).  Both are moments that entirely without words from Quasimodo, but they are both so indicative of how sad Quasimodo’s existence is.  It is this one little tear that makes the subsequent torture at the hands of a vicious and cruel crowd all the more tragic.
In that moment, Frollo’s words, “the world is cruel / the world is wicked,” “you are deformed / and you are ugly / and these are crimes for which the world shows little pity,” and “out there they’ll revile you as a monster / out there they will hate / and scorn and jeer” are one-hundred percent true.  Quasimodo realizes afterwards that he should have heeded Frollo’s words, “why invite their calumny / and consternation?” hence his utterly defeated tears as he walks unsteadily back into his bell tower, sealing Notre Dame’s doors shut, blacking out the light emanating from “out there.”  It’s such a far cry from the hopeful hunchback wishing melodically for a day “Out There” just a few scenes prior.  Quasimodo finding the life he hoped for “Out There” does not come about until he finds confidence in himself after becoming friends with Esmeralda.
Quasimodo is not the most important character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, even though he is the title character as well as being the character that undergoes the most change come story’s end—Esmeralda is.  The beautiful gypsy dancer managed to sashay her way into the thoughts of three very different men, and in doing so wound up being Hunchback’s MacGuffin.  Esmeralda single-handedly drives three-quarters of the film’s plot, serving as the apex of a very convoluted love triangle, which would probably be better described as a love polygon.
Who can blame Pheobus, Quasimodo, and Frollo for all becoming enamored with the lovely gypsy girl?  First and most obviously of all, she’s gorgeous.  I love how bold her design is.  Nothing about her features could be mistaken as delicate.  She has this fantastic olive skin, glossy, thick black hair, and a very womanly shape.  I especially appreciate her thick black eyebrows, speaking as a thick eyebrow-ed lass myself.  Most striking of all are her beautiful, expressive green eyes, which run the gamut from seductive to kind to angry during the course of the film.  A great amount of emphasis has to be placed on Esmeralda’s eyes, considering that her name comes from the Spanish/ Portuguese word for “emerald.”

The filmmakers cast Demi Moore as Esmeralda’s voice, because they didn’t want her to have a typical leading lady voice.  Moore did a very good job playing Esmeralda; I especially enjoyed her reading when she shouts “Justice!” at Frollo.  Her husky voice gave Esmeralda a worldly, streetwise quality that a woman who grew up as a gypsy outcast would possess.   Thanks to Moore’s voice and – supervising animator – Tom Fucile’s animation, a memorable heroine who manages to snag the attention of three very different men is created.
“Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” best sums up both Quasimodo and Frollo’s feelings regarding Esmeralda.  Quasimodo sees Esmeralda as an angel (notice the not-so-subtle angelic sounding children’s choir that always accompany their interactions together) finally bringing him a taste of what Heaven’s light might feel like, whereas Frollo thinks of her as a provocative siren witch born from the fires of Hell.  They think of her in extremes, which is why neither of them could end up with her in a romantic sense.  Quasimodo only sees Esmeralda’s good qualities, while Frollo only sees her as a seductive heathen.  Esmeralda is both an angel and a vixen, and there is only one man in the film who recognizes and appreciates both of those qualities in her, and that is Phoebus.  After witnessing Esmeralda’s thorough thrashing of Frollo’s guards, Phoebus declares with an awestruck look on his face, “what a woman!”  Indeed, Phoebus phrased it best; Esmeralda can be both kind and sultry, a woman all the way.

Kevin Kline was an interesting choice for Phoebus.  After all, he is better known as a character actor (he was awarded his Oscar for his comedic turn in A Fish Called Wanda) as opposed to a heroic leading man.  Kline adds a quirky layer to Phoebus, gifting him with a very dry sense of humor that I don’t think we have really seen before in a Disney hero (“You leave town for a couple of decades and they change everything”).  His sense of humor in contrast to his moments of heroism makes Phoebus one of the more interesting characters found within Hunchback.  Unfortunately, I am not convinced that the filmmakers managed to strike the correct balance of humor and heroism with Phoebus.  Though Kline’s signature dry witticisms are fantastic and incredibly quotable, I don’t fully buy him as the hero when he does manage to pull off some traditional heroics.  I don’t completely believe him when he gives that speech motivating the citizens of Paris to revolt against Frollo.  The filmmakers were much more successful with Phoebus by allowing him to commit acts of heroism while still maintaining his sarcastic sense of humor (“Achilles, sit,” “Consider it my highest honor, sir,” “Alone at last”). 
            Sitting in the other corner of Hunchback’s love polygon is Judge Claude Frollo.  We’ve discussed villains at length on here, for the most part agreeing that the scariest Disney villains are the ones who could potentially exist in real life (ex. McLeach, Sykes, Lady Tremaine).  In my mind, the most chilling example from this category is Frollo.  He represents one the darkest corners of humanity.  Here is a man in a position of power who justifies his abhorrent actions with a tyrannical sense of self-righteousness.  People like Frollo are not a scary shadow from the past; human beings much like him emerge every day around every corner of the globe, ranging from dictators to religious leaders to politicians.  Frollo is a perfect representation of corruption at its worst. Case in point, his relationship with Quasimodo.  The way those two characters interact is downright uncomfortable for the audience watch.  Frollo twists his words to make it seem like he is doing a kindness to Quasimodo for locking him in a bell tower, not allowing him any other human contact whatsoever, and frequently reminding him of his ugliness.  The audience spends a great amount of time shouting at the screen, “He murdered your mother, Quasi!”
He’s also a lecherous bigot.  Frollo spends the entirety of the film so disdainful of the gypsies that his sudden obsession with a particularly beautiful gypsy woman created quite the war within himself.  His fixation on finding Esmeralda is not just founded on the fact that she is beautiful: Esmeralda got under Frollo’s skin because she defied him, something not many people have accomplished and lived to tell the tale.  He’s not entirely sure if he wants her dead or if he simply wants her.  One thing is certain: Frollo is most definitely not in love with Esmeralda.  Given the manner in which he smelled her hair, stroked her neck, and imagined a fire spirit version of her as he caressed his cheek with her veil, I would venture to say that “romance” is the polite phrase for what Frollo wants from Esmeralda. 
When he belts “Be mine or you will / burn,” Frollo is not claiming her as “mine” in the sense that he wants to take Esmeralda for long walks on the beach.  Frollo is the first villain to all but state that his interest in the heroine doesn’t extend beyond a sexual nature.  The fact that she’s a gypsy adds a forbidden nature to his desire for her.  The fact that Frollo considers himself such a pious individual not plagued by the sinful temptations of ordinary men makes his blatant sexual desire for her becomes even more twisted.
Nowhere is Frollo’s religious hypocrisy better illustrated than in “The Bells of Notre Dame.”  He’s so convinced that the ends justify his means that he sees murdering an innocent woman and drowning her baby as completely rational courses of action.  An obvious foil to Frollo is the Archdeacon, who is also introduced in this scene.  The Archdeacon is probably my favorite character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Whereas Frollo has twisted the lessons taught in Christianity to suit his own purposes, the Archdeacon stands as an incorruptible pillar of the good that can come out of Christianity.  It’s not a coincidence that the Archdeacon is the only character who is able to stop Frollo from committing various atrocities during the early half of the film. 
The Archdeacon’s verse in “The Bells of Notre Dame” never fails to give me chills, especially the line “But you never can run from / nor hide what you’ve done from the eyes / the eyes of Notre Dame!”  The Archdeacon truly is a righteous man doing God’s work, in stark contrast to Frollo’s rather suspect ways.  The fact that David Ogden Stiers voiced the Archdeacon gives him that extra dose of depth a character like him needs.  In a not so surprising twist since Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale directed this film, David Ogden Stiers and Tony Jay – the voice of Frollo – both had roles in Beauty and the Beast, though they did not appear in any scenes together then. 
Frollo’s powerful twisted-ness comes in thanks to two people: his supervising animator, Kathy Zielinski , and his voice actor, Tony Jay.  Zielinski outdid herself with Frollo’s performance, especially during his close-ups in “Hellfire.”  Of course, Frollo would not be nearly as effective were it not for the ultra-deep, elegant, yet menacing pipes of Tony Jay.  Upon hearing Jay’s voice when he played Monsieur D’Arque in Beauty and the Beast, Wise and Trousdale loved his voice so much that they cast him as the main villain in their next film.  Tony Jay’s voice has a quality in common with Eleanor Audley: with pipes like those, there’s no way he could ever play a good guy.
All bad guys meet their comeuppance in Disney movies (except for
Pinocchio), and Frollo is no different.  His comeuppance is a standout moment in the film for being especially horrifying.  Visually, it’s clear that Frollo is unraveling from a psychological standpoint since the usually so composed judge looks so frazzled without his hat and his white hair a mess.  Particularly chilling is the yellow tint the whites of his eyes and teeth take on when he raises his sword, with the orange heat of the fire and smoke rising behind him.  It’s an image that’s positively demonic looking and one that an audience member will not soon forget. 

The Biblical sounding quote he spouts (“And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit”) is not an actual quote from the Bible, but I believe it is a paraphrase of Isaiah 11:4: “But with righteousness He will judge the poor, / And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; / And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, / And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.”  Though there are some common terms, no fiery pit is mentioned so the two quotes are not saying the same thing at all.  The fact that Frollo does not say an actual Bible passage is very indicative of the person he is.  He twists the lessons of Christianity around to suit his own agendas, just like he selected certain things from the Bible to justify his actions. 

His final words are appropriate though, since he (a wicked man) is himself plunged quite suddenly into a fiery pit.  There have been quite a few Disney villains who plummeted to their deaths, but Frollo’s plummet is arguably the most chilling.  He takes a rather slow moving plummet into a blazing inferno is symbolic enough on its own, but the filmmakers also added him hallucinating that the gargoyle he was gripping for dear life was really a snarling demon.  The demon gargoyle, the shot of him plummeting almost resembling a force other than gravity pulling him downward, the blazing inferno filling the screen, all work in tandem to create a true glimpse of Hell.  The audience isn’t just being shown Frollo’s death; we’re seeing exactly where he’s going afterwards.

Considering the large role that Christianity plays in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it is not surprising that the ending is reminiscent of a very famous Bible verse.  If I may draw your attention to Isaiah 11:6: “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, / And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, / And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; / And a little child will lead them.”  The verse describes the kind of peace that the world will experience with the Messiah, but appropriately enough, it fits with the final moments of Hunchback.  It’s possible to interpret the verse as beings radically different overcoming all that divides them and actually achieving peace with one another.  When viewed that way, the verse touches on one of the key themes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: the citizens of Paris must learn to overlook Quasimodo’s appearance to see the man he really is.  What drew my attention to this verse and its relevance to The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the final line:  “And a little child will lead them.”

The idea of children being uncorrupted by societal standards is a literary convention that has been employed numerous times across several mediums.  It was actually a theme established early on in Hunchback, during Phoebus and Esmeralda’s introductory scene: a mother and her daughter are walking together when the little girl becomes delighted by the dancing Djali’s antics.  The mother all too loudly states: “Stay away, child.  They’re gypsies!  They’ll steal us blind.”  This lets the audience know that the mother is a representation of the kind of prejudice the gypsies of Paris endure.  The little girl, though, seems to not even hear her as she continues to look excitedly at Djali.  That little girl didn’t see thieves; all she saw were people (and a dancing goat!) making music for the delight of others. 

It comes as no shock to the audience that it is yet another young girl to be the first one who accepts Quasimodo.  The little girl approaches him with some skepticism but does not look at all afraid.  That emotion is reserved for Quasimodo who all but winces when she reaches for his face.  Obviously, he feared some sort of violent reaction from her since that’s all he seemed to receive from the townsfolk for almost ninety minutes of film time.  When he realizes that she only wants to examine his face up-close, he relaxes and practically melts into her embrace.  She reciprocates the affection with a warm smile and a soothing stroke through his hair, practically adopting a maternal quality for a moment.  Notice though that when she eagerly guides him into the crowd that the majority of the onlookers still part to get out of his way.  It is only when Clopin yells “Three cheers for Quasimodo” does the remainder of the crowd cheer and embrace Quasimodo.  It is only through the combined efforts of the little girl and Clopin that the rest of society finally accepts Quasimodo.  This is not so surprising since the filmmakers had already established that the little girl and Clopin have a connection to each other: she was one of the children enraptured with Clopin’s puppet show during the Prologue, and that is why she and Clopin appear together in Clopin’s “curtain call.”

            The one thing that always sits odd with me when it comes to Hunchback is that tonally the film does not feel cohesive.  While there are moments of extreme darkness littered throughout, there are moments of extreme slapstick also present.  In theory, these lighthearted moments were included to balance the overall somber mood that permeates The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Quasimodo’s torture at the hands of the merciless crowd is followed immediately by Esmeralda’s frantic and thorough beat down of Frollo’s guards, Frollo’s relentless and cruel campaign to find Esmeralda is followed by the gargoyles singing “A Guy Like You,” and the gargoyles antics throughout the final battle are all very cartoony in contrast to the rest of Hunchback.  Though it is hard to criticize the filmmakers’ instincts to leaven the story in any way that they could, said scenes and the like exist in complete opposite ends of the tonal spectrum that they never really fuse together in a satisfying way.  That is not to say that they are bad; “mon sewer” always gets a chuckle out of me, and all three of the gargoyles are performed well (voicing Laverne was Mary Wickes’ final role before her passing), though their inclusion is most obviously little more than to serve as comic relief characters.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was well received by critics and audiences alike, as it grossed over three hundred and twenty five million dollars total.  As far as the love Hunchback gets beyond the film goes, there’s not a whole lot to talk about.  The film doesn’t have very much of a theme park presence, which is not so surprising considering that this one is not quite as kid friendly as previous Disney offerings.  The one character from The Hunchback of Notre Dame that does pop up from time to time is – funnily enough – Frollo.  Since he is a member of the Disney Villains line, his face character can be seen walking occasionally with his fellow villains in parades. 

The lack of Hunchback in the theme parks was not always the status quo.  When I was younger, I distinctly remember seeing a live stage show version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame performed at Disney’s Hollywood Studios back when it was called Disney’s MGM Studios.  The attraction was most likely used as a means of promoting the film at the time of its release.  If you didn’t believe me before about my theory that Disney uses the theme park shows as a proving ground to see how the story would do as a more elaborate Broadway style stage production, then may I draw your attention to Der Glöckner von Notre Dame, or - literally translated from German - The Bellringer of Notre Dame.  It was a musical based on the animated film that premiered in Berlin, Germany in 1999 and ran for three years, making it one of the longest running musicals in Berlin’s history.  It featured an extended soundtrack written by Menken and Schwartz and was able to include some songs originally intended for the film. 

There are always going to be differences from the film when it is adapted for the stage, but Der Glöckner von Notre Dame is especially different because it chose a more somber, melancholic tone than its animated counterpart.  The play is actually a closer adaptation to Victor Hugo’s original novel than the animated film was.  I don’t want to give away some of the twists within the theatrical version, seeing as how some of us may actually get to see this play in the near future.  Schwartz has been hinting since 2008 that the States would see an English language revival of Der Glöckner von Notre Dame, and Menken confirmed in 2010 that they were hard at work on the American production.
            Looking back on Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I have to say that the general mood of the Disney Animation Studio must have been quite somber and serious from all of 1995 to 1996.  It’s strange that Disney chose to release two dramatic, more adult oriented films in a row.  The last time Disney attempted something similar was when The Fox and the Hound preceded The Black Cauldron, and we all know how that worked out.  It could be said that with the success of increasingly thematically sophisticated films (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) Disney felt that their audience had matured beyond mere cartoony kids’ fare.  Natural instinct dictated that the studio would attempt to see how far they could venture into the other direction, by crafting two dramatic films, the latter of which threw out most conventions associated with wholesome family entertainment.  Whether or not this was a successful experiment for the studio is debatable.  One thing is certain: The Hunchback of Notre Dame is in my mind the most daring film created by Disney since Fantasia.  The overall quality of the film is mixed at best, but the filmmakers should be praised for having the audacity to adapt the famous Victor Hugo novel into a Disney animated classic.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame conveyed that Don Hahn, Gary Trousdale, and Kirk Wise were the kind of filmmakers that were fearless, undaunted, and – most of all – ballsy.

Once again, I find myself apologizing to my ultra-fabulous readers for the longest Waking Snow White delay yet.  Guys, I swear that it’s not that I don’t love you all, I do.  I hope most of you are still with me because your comments and support give me the motivation to keep going.  I could say that life got in the way of posting Hunchback, but that would only be partially true.  At this point I feel like that’s a cop-out excuse, and I believe that y’all deserve honesty from me.  While life did get in the way of my writing somewhat, the truth is that working on Pocahontas and Hunchback back to back proved to be a little more difficult than I anticipated.  Why?  Because it never really occurred to me that I would be working on two total downer films in a row.  I don’t think Disney has done two films in a row with ultra-serious subject matter since Pocahontas and Hunchback.  Given my total lack of enthusiasm when it came to repeat viewings of either of these films, I can only imagine the mood Disney Animation was in after spending multiple years on not one, but two somber films.  It’s no wonder the next film Disney Animation worked on was so light-hearted; after these, they needed to laugh again!

If anyone is scared that I will go another five months without posting again, then have no fear.  I worked out a deal with my editor that I would only post this piece if the next one was finished, that way the posts could begin to come out in a timely manner.  My editor?  Oh yeah, I need to mention that this is the first post written under the supervision of Waking Snow White’s new chief editor: my sister, Ginger.  Her title is officially editor, but I prefer to think of her as a really peppy drill sergeant.  Every day since she moved back home: “Did you work on Hunchback? Did you finish Hunchback? Are you going to work on Hunchback today?” Safe to say, posts will be coming out in a more timely manner from here on out.

On another note of housekeeping, I would really like to figure out a logo that’s more appropriate for the tone Waking Snow White tries to set.  Sadly, I am about as design illiterate as one can get.  If any one of you guys happen to be quite computer savvy and wouldn’t mind designing a logo for the website, please let me know if you are interested and I will give you full permanent credit on the page for logo design.  My only request is that the logo avoids Disney lettering.  While classic, I think it would be just a bit too obvious for a Disney blog. 

Before we part ways this time, I have a little trivia question for you all: given what you have learned about me from the thirty or so blog pieces I have written about Disney, what would you say is my all-time favorite Disney soundtrack?  I’ll give you a hint: it is an Alan Menken soundtrack, but it is not one that would immediately come to mind when one thinks of Alan Menken.  Take your time, I’ll wait.

Beauty and the Beast?  While it is a beautiful soundtrack, my favorite Alan Menken soundtrack was made after Howard Ashman had passed away, so that rules out Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin.  Try again.
Tangled?  That’s too far ahead.  My favorite Disney soundtrack is considered to be a part of the Disney Renaissance, so that rules out both Tangled and Home On The Range.  Guess again.
Pocahontas?  Getting warmer.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame?  Oh, so close.  My all-time favorite Disney soundtrack is actually Disney’s thirty-fifth animated classic, Hercules, a film that also happens to be the subject of the next entry of Waking Snow White.  It’s not a film that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of classic Disney soundtracks, I know, but every time one of its songs pop up on my iTunes, I have to sing along.  I love all but one of the songs created for Hercules, and I will focus a great amount of attention on its wonderful music in my next piece, so get excited because I am.  Thanks so much for reading and your comments are always greatly appreciated.

P.S.  You all have gotten your Lady and the Tramp blu-rays like good little Disney fanatics, right?  Did you page through the little booklet advertising upcoming Disney releases?  Holy crap, there are a lot of Disney animated classics coming to blu-ray this year!  The Aristocats, The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, Pocahontas
Treasure Planet, and Home on the Range are all being released this summer, and finally Cinderella is going to be released this fall!  If my math is right, nineteen films from Disney Animation are available on blu-ray, so with these new titles that will bring the Disney Animation blu-ray collection up to twenty-six.  That’s more than half of the Disney animation library.  My wish list for future blu-ray releases: a collection of the package films together with an extended documentary on Disney Animation during the war years, a Robin Hood blu-ray finally showing the film the love it deserves, and an uncut, unrated, re-edited edition of The Black Cauldron.  Thoughts and comments, folks?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

75 Years of Undeniable Magic

            We live in uncertain and troubling times in a tumultuous world: economic instability, growing international tensions, warring political parties, and a supposed apocalypse looming.  Whatever can we do to face the onslaught of cynicism and hardship?  Though my voice might not be the loudest in the grand scheme of things, I say we give a little whistle, wish upon a star, and face each day as it comes with a smile and a song.  Yes, all the world needs is just a touch more Disney magic to make each day a zip-a-dee-doo-dah day and remind us “all our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”  So my way of spreading some pixie dust around is to end my previously unannounced hiatus and return Waking Snow White to its former glory.  Granted, I am well aware that the fiftieth animated film milestone has come and gone; fortunately, I am just in time to celebrate an even bigger landmark for the Mouse: 2012 marks Walt Disney Animation’s seventy-fifth year.  That’s seventy-five years of creating timeless magic for the entire world to enjoy time and time again, and I do believe that is indeed something worth celebrating.  I am determined to make the remainder to 2012 the grand finale for Waking Snow White, and hopefully create a happily ever after for it that has been worth the wait.  So if y’all are ready and willing to finish this journey with me, I do believe this princess’ nap has lasted long enough.