By Owen Gleiberman
June 21, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

When it was announced that Disney would produce an animated musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, there were doubts, even jokes, about transforming Victor Hugo’s classic tale, with its famously misshapen hero, into a crowd-pleaser for kids. Quasimodo warbling neo-Broadway show tunes? It sounded like surefire kitsch. And would the material, with its undercurrent of masochistic yearning, prove too wrenching for young viewers? The doubts were unwarranted. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a beautiful and transporting experience — the best, I think, of Disney’s ”serious” animated features in the multiplex era. Like the 1939 Charles Laughton version (its obvious model), it’s an emotionally rounded fairy tale that balances darkness and sentimentality, pathos and triumph, with uncanny grace.

Journeying back to the 15th century has brought out something new in the Disney animators. Notre Dame itself, with its towers poking up into the clouds, its walkways and stained glass fusing in a sublime dance of light, suggests a fortress made of gingerbread. The entire movie has a richer visual palette than we’re used to in Disney cartoons. In the streets of medieval Paris, splashes of color, like the orange and purple of a puppeteer’s costume, stand out from the earthy squalor with near-psychedelic dazzle. And the Alan Menken-Stephen Schwartz score, for all its showpiece numbers (where would a Hunchback musical be without singing gargoyles?), has been woven into the action as seamless recitative. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a true folk-pop operetta. Yet it’s not just the look and feel of the film that’s bolder, grander. The characters have a dramatic verve that seizes your imagination.

In this version, Quasimodo becomes a kind of teenage lonely-boy variation on Laughton’s grotesque creature. With his buck teeth and bulgy left eyebrow, a nose that thrusts outward like a certain feature of the male anatomy, and that hump that lends him the posture of a loping baboon, he’s as freakish as any hunchback need be. Yet he’s also astonishingly expressive. The Disney animators have succeeded where, I thought, they failed in Beauty and the Beast: They’ve given their outcast hero a face so supple and responsive that we vibrate to his every glimmer of sadness and joy. With a voice provided by Tom Hulce, Quasimodo speaks like a perfectly ordinary — if melancholy — adolescent. He’s the hunchback as Misunderstood Kid, and if that seems a Disneyfication of the character, it lets us know that the hunchback, despite his appearance, is normal — inside, where it counts.

As an infant, Quasimodo was taken in by the evil, slithery Judge Frollo, who raised him to believe that he wasn’t meant to be with normal people. Talk about dysfunction! At times, this harrowing relationship recalls the one between Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in Carrie. Confined to his bell tower, Quasimodo covets the life around him, building pretty little sculptures of the people down below and keeping company with a crew of nattering stone gargoyles (led by an amusingly Brooklynesque Jason Alexander). It’s when he dares venture into the streets that trouble starts. At the Feast of Fools, he is crowned king, put up on a block, and pelted with fruit. It’s the most disturbing scene in the movie, yet it ends on a note of extraordinary tenderness, as Esmeralda, the aqua-eyed Gypsy beauty, climbs onto the block to ease his suffering. Esmeralda has been given the voice — and, startlingly, the face — of Demi Moore, who makes her as sexy and rebellious as Pocahontas but not nearly as earnest. (She’s a fiery flirt.) After Disney’s feminist cartoon heroines, it’s refreshing to meet the first postfeminist one. And Phoebus, the soldier who adores her (voiced by a self-mocking Kevin Kline), represents a true break from mannequin blandness. He’s like Kenneth Branagh in full fatuous cry.

If The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a love story, it’s an ironic one, since a romance with Esmeralda isn’t in the cards for Quasimodo. As he becomes her protector, ushering her into the sanctuary of Notre Dame, the film confronts his longing with bittersweet rue. It’s such a pure human tale that even the dastardly Frollo is given an emotionally complex musical number in which his suppressed lust for Esmeralda turns to hatred. Will children grasp all the nuances? So strong is the storytelling that I think they’ll feel the film’s elemental passions. They’ll understand that Quasimodo’s true quest isn’t, finally, to win the love of Esmeralda. It’s to leave his cathedral prison and discover that there’s a place for him too on those beautiful Parisian streets. A

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