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Directors: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Release Date: June 21, 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

After feature adaptations of several fairy tales and children’s books, and even a non-fiction book on aerial warfare (‘Victory through Air Power’ from 1943), ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ marks the studio’s very first animated adaptation of classic literature, in this case the historical novel of the same name from 1831 by French author Victor Hugo.

Of course, Disney’s version is not the first movie adaptation of Hugo’s hefty book. The most famous predecessors are a silent version from 1923 starring Lon Chaney as the title character, and one from 1939 starring Charles Laughton. The latter adaptation changed Hugo’s bleak and depressive ending into a more uplifting one. Disney gladfully follows suit, ending its own film remarkably upbeat, which is something the more avid Victor Hugo fan will hardly get used to. But more about that later.

The film starts with a ‘Pinocchio’-like opening shot with the camera zooming into the streets of Paris. Immediately it becomes clear that this new adaptation of ‘The Hunchback’ will be a musical, because the first song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ kicks in right away. It is sung by puppet player Clopin (Paul Kandel), whom we zoom into shortly, and who is the initial narrator of the tale, telling about events occurring twenty years before. This is the first of nine songs in 81 minutes, making ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ one of the most song-rich of the Disney musicals.

After the six-minute intro the film’s title appears, and we immediately cut to young adult Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce of Amadeus fame), who remains misshapen as in the original novel, having both an asymmetrical body and face, with one bad eye, a hump, and a limping walk. But the animators also immediately make clear that this is a friendly, kind-hearted, and harmless person. Disney’s Quasimodo is kind and gentle and has a nice voice (by Tom Hulce), so we as an audience hardly must overcome any prejudice.

Moreover, within the limitations of the character’s literally description, the character designers really tried to make Quasimodo as appealing as possible. For example, compare his appearance to that of either Chaney or Laughton, who both look much uglier, and must overcome initial repulsion by the audience by great acting. Disney’s Quasimodo, on the other hand, is instantly likeable, and the viewer even struggles to comprehend why he isn’t loved more by the citizens of Paris.

Quasimodo’s first scene also shows the weird dualism of this movie: at one hand the studio really wants to tell a serious story, with heavy-handed themes, and dramatic music. On the other hand, the film makers apparently don’t dare to leave the cuddly-wuddly world of earlier Disney children’s films, and this leads to a schizophrenic end product, failing to be either entirely for children or the dark tale it could have been.

For example, the studio gives Quasimodo three humanized gargoyles to talk to (perhaps another idea taken from the 1939 film version, which ends with Quasimodo talking to a gargoyle). The appearance of the three gargoyles feels disappointingly formulaic and out-of-tune after the dramatic introduction. The childish half of the movie is further enhanced by the present of an intelligent pet goat and an equally humanized horse called Achilles. These two animal characters don’t speak, but clearly belong to the world of obligate animal sidekicks, which permeate the Disney films since ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989).

True, the gargoyles appear only to be real to Quasimodo, turning to stone as soon as any other character is in the same room, but as we often watch them move without Quasimodo being aware of them, we’re led into believing these stone characters are real, and only pretending to be lifeless when other people are around.

Despite the presence of these cute characters, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is arguably Disney’s darkest movie since ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), addressing issues like prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and hypocrisy.

Most striking in this respect is the character of the villain judge Frollo, voiced forcefully by Tony Jay. His lust for Esmeralda is clearly an adult theme. This becomes most apparent in the character’s own song of desire, with its erotic fantasy depictions of Esmeralda depicted in the flames he watches. Masterly animated by Kathy Zielinski, this is arguably the movie’s best song, highlighting the complexity of the character. Frollo isn’t just bad, he’s torn inside. Frollo all too willingly marries his lust to his sense of justice and sees no problem in purging the town’s gypsies only to find his object of desire. In fact, Frollo is the most interesting character of the whole film, and certainly one of the most interesting of all Disney villains, for his evilness comes from partly from fanatism and bigotry, and is not purely selfish, even though that’s an important component of his character, too.

Another adult theme is the love triangle between Quasimodo, Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and captain Phoebus. Esmeralda is the focal point of the movie, being the object of desire of the three male leads, if in different ways for each of them. Phoebus is a bland hero character, and the only one who doesn’t sing. At one point Quasimodo actually believes Esmeralda loves him, and he has to overcome his jealousy of his more handsome rival to help Phoebus finding Esmeralda.

Yet, as the film makers don’t really choose between a light-hearted and a serious narrative, the film remains an odd blend. For example, Quasimodo’s rescue scene is played out very dramatically and seriously. But this scene is followed by a rather frivolous storming of the cathedral, full of silly gags and broad, cartoony animation. One can even hear the Goofy yell when the soldiers fall from great heights to a – I’d say – certain death. This lack of choice troubles and harms the film big time. A Disney cliché scene in which a character seems dead but turns out not to be (see ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Jungle Book’) doesn’t help either.

But what really becomes hard to swallow is the film’s ending, which is all too happy, defying every believability. In Disney’s version Quasimodo seemingly starts a revolution, and the film makers want us to believe that following the film’s events the Middle Ages stopped right there and propelled all citizens of Paris into a post-modern world of tolerance and rainbow harmony, free from despotism, prejudice, and discrimination. If only. For example, ninety years after the events depicted here Paris would witness the atrocities of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. I’m afraid that although Victor Hugo’s original ending may the more gruesome, it’s also the more realistic one.

The film is more successful as a musical than as a retelling of Victor Hugo’s novel. Alan Menken’s music is in the same modern musical vein as earlier Disney musicals, like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992), but the tone is much more dramatic, verging on the edge of bombast.  Unique for this movie is that the score remains its musical character even when there’s no singing. An unexpected element of his score is Menken’s use of leitmotivs. Especially Frollo is identified by a particularly well-composed melody, which recurs throughout the movie. Menken may count this melody as one of his very best ever. Frollo’s song is the film’s dramatic highlight, and as said the best song of the whole film, but Menken’s score reaches epic heights during the rescue scene, when a choir singing in Latin adds to the musical suspense.

The only real mistake in the score is the Gargoyle’s song, the film’s only light-hearted tune. In this tune we’re suddenly confronted with many anachronisms and French cliches completely out of tune with the rest of the movie, like images of a casino, a barber, and a grand piano. What worked in ‘Aladdin’ falls completely flat in ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’. These anachronisms come across as a lack of ideas, instead of original twists, and pull the viewer out of the story, instead of taking him further in. Yet, it must be said that even this song shows the grim image of three people being hanged, even if it’s in puppet form. In the same way, a later song by a bunch of scoundrels remains very merry, even though it’s about killing.

The film’s design is noteworthy for its moody color palette, with blues, purple and orange as its principal colors, which permeate almost all scenes. The human designs are more elaborate, yet less artful than before, with Esmeralda and Phoebus being particularly bland. Unfortunately, somehow, it’s this more generic design that would become standard in the final traditionally American animated films of the late nineties and early 2000s.

The human designs may lack character, their animation is by all means outstanding, and shows that the Disney studio was at the very top of its craft. An example is the Topsy-Turvy song. Set at the Feast of Fools (which was actually forbidden by 1431, while the action takes place in 1482, but this is Victor Hugo’s error), this song features elaborate movement, fast cutting, all kinds of camera angles, and many different characters, both traditionally animated and computer animated. But all the movement and the characters’ emotions remain readable all the time. In fact, one can watch this sequence in silence and still know what’s going on.

Other pieces of animation I particularly like is when Frollo wriggles his sword out of a piece of wood while entering the cathedral, and the one in which Esmeralda asks Quasimodo to come outside, shot from Quasimodo’s perspective, thus making Esmeralda reaching out to us. But these are just examples in a film overflowing with excellent character animation.

Computer animation is limited to special effects, especially for creating crowd scenes. With help of computers, the studio could generate crowds of hundreds of people, without having to animate each person individually. When one looks closer, the animation looks terribly stiff and lifeless, but as the eye normally follows the fully animated leads, the result is convincing enough, and luckily not out of tune with the fully animated lead characters.

In all, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is a well-made film with a very interesting musical score, and great animation. It’s a daring piece into more serious territory, something the studio would never repeat. And I understand why, because as long as the Disney studio doesn’t dare to leave its compulsory family character, it will never succeed in retelling dramatic stories like Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ convincingly. This film certainly fails to do so, despite all the effort, and remains a schizophrenic product that leaves the viewer wondering what it could have been if the studio would have made more daring choices.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ and tell me what you think:

‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Release Date:
June 10, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

It’s hard to call ‘Brave’ the first Pixar letdown, that questionable honor goes to ‘Cars 2’ from the previous year, but the film certainly is a disappointment, not delivering upon its potential.

The film had a rather troubled production, with writer/director Brenda Chapman being replaced halfway by Mark Andrews, and somehow it shows. ‘Brave’ is arguably the first Pixar film that comes across as a half-baked product, with story ideas not worked out to the max.

The film’s premise is good: ‘Brave’ is the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, a princess even, surprisingly placing the film in a long Disney tradition. But Merida is not your average princess. The Scottish red-haired girl is a feisty character, a talented archer, a lover of action and adventure, and bound to step in her father’s footsteps, who’s a great warrior himself. Unfortunately, her mother stifles her into a more traditional role of womanhood, constantly telling her what a princess ought and not ought to do. Even worse, her mother prepares Merida for marriage, with several suitors coming over to compete for her. Unfortunately, not one of them is suiting marriage material (for example, one talks unintelligible, without any obvious reason), and Merida isn’t interested in this prospect, anyway, so she plans to compete herself, as she’s by far the best archer of the lot, repeating the arrow-splitting act of ‘Robin Hood’ (1973).

So far so good, but then the tale suddenly abandons the archery subplot completely. Instead, it dwindles away into a tale of magic, in which Merida deliberately poisons her mother, changing the poor woman into a bear. Unfortunately, at this point the story of independence is abandoned completely, as Merida now must bond with her bear-mother and to protect her against the men, who gladly would kill the beast. Sure, Merida’s mother now learns what Merida has learned outside the castle, but Merida’s insight in her mother’s ways is less worked out, and there’s a very unconvincing scene in which she steps in her mother’s footsteps, addressing the men, guided by her mother’s gestures. Anyhow, as soon Merida’s mother has turned into a bear, her problems are obviously bigger than Merida’s own, and thus the attention naturally shifts from the curly teenager to the poor woman, which contributes to a lack of focus, which permeates the film anyhow. I believe the very idea of turning Merida’s mother into a bear is a fundamental problematical one, a mistake central to the film’s story problems, especially when compared to the similar ‘Brother Bear’ (2003) and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000) in which the main protagonist himself turns into an animal.

At any rate, after the archery scene the story begins to falter, leaving an awful lot of plot holes open. For example, there’s an ancient legend on four clans, but this idea is worked out badly, and hardly connected to the main story. The function of the killing of the giant bear Mor’du is puzzling – wouldn’t it have been better to show that only united the clans could be able to defeat the bear?

‘Brave’ also wastes an opportunity to become a real feminist film. First, in spite of it all, Merida still is a princess, and thus far from an ordinary woman – and her plight is slight when compared to that of her (invisible) less high-born sisterhood. If one compares her burden to that of Robyn in Cartoon Saloon’s ‘Wolfwalkers’ (2020) the difference becomes clear. Robyn is depicted working all day, shut off from the real world, while Merida at least can practice archery and such. Second, the role pressure solely comes from her mother, not society – and it’s even implied her father couldn’t care less whether Merida behaves like a princess or not. I think it would have served the film better if Merida’s plight were compared to that of a brother, but the film makers gave the princess a triplet as siblings, which are too young for comparison, and whose only function in the story is as comic relief. At one point they too turn into bears, but nobody seems to care…

No, it’s not the story, nor a feminist message that defines ‘Brave’, it’s texture. The Pixar studio made tremendous progress in depicting cloth and hair in this film, advancing computer animation once again. Merida’s extremely curly hair stands out as particularly well done, but so do the tartans of the tribes, which for the first time look like real fabric. Strangely, the building and rendering of the nature settings has aged less well – the light often is too sharp, leading to overexposed settings, especially on the sunlit grass and leaves. Moreover, the trees are too obviously generated, and look pretty fake. Luckily, the story is entertaining enough that this is soon forgotten.

Another design choice that I like less is the magnification of human sexual dimorphism: Merida’s father is almost three times the size of her slender mother or herself. Unfortunately, this depiction of men and women only diminishes the possible message of equality. Even worse, all the men are depicted as dim-witted and fight-ready, leaving the queen as seemingly the only sane person in this world.

‘Brave’ may be a disappointment, the film still is very well animated. The voice acting is superb, too, starring several Scottish and English actors, so no fake accent can be heard. The soundtrack is fair, with its quasi-Celtic themes, and the cinematography is excellent, but all this cannot rescue a rambling story, leaving ‘Brave’ a film as excellent as it is unsatisfying. A studio like Pixar certainly could and should have done a better job.

Watch the trailer for ‘Brave’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Brave’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Dave Tendlar
Release Date: November 22, 1957
Stars: Herman and Katnip
Rating:
Review:

One Funny Knight © Paramount‘One Funny Knight’ takes place in mystical medieval times.

Herman works as a servant in a tiny medieval castle in a forest. When Katnip kidnaps ‘beautiful’ princess Guinevere, Herman comes to the rescue. Rather incongruously, Katnip is dressed in 17th century style, and rides a scooter to his own, much larger, castle, followed by Herman on a bicycle.

There is more melodrama than humor in ‘One Funny Knight’, which makes the cartoon a rather boring watch. Nevertheless, there are some nice perspective stagings.

Watch ‘One Funny Knight’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘One Funny Knight’ is available on the DVD ‘Herman and Katnip – The Complete Series’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 20, 1940
Stars: Popeye
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Popeye Meets William Tell © Max FleischerWithout any explanation Popeye walks through a medieval setting, where he meets William Tell.

When William Tell refuses to bow for the governor, Popeye volunteers to act as his son, so he can shoot an apple from his head. But Tell misses, and Popeye collapses. But when Tell is about to be beheaded, Popeye comes to the rescue, with help of spinach.

The story of ‘Popeye Meets William Tell’ is not really remarkable, but the cartoon is full of silly gags and anachronisms. None of it makes sense, and there’s a sense of anarchy present reminiscent of the Marx Brothers films.

The cartoon is a rather oddball entry within the Popeye series, with the designs of the other characters being more reminiscent of the inhabitants of Lilliput of ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘ (1939) than of the other characters in the Popeye universe. The short is definitely worth a watch, as it displays the large amount of creativity the Fleischer studio put into this series.

Watch ‘Popeye Meets William Tell’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 87
To the previous Popeye film: Puttin on the Act
To the next Popeye film: My Pop, My Pop

‘Popeye Meets William Tell’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Unknown
Release Date: May 28, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Honey, Peg Leg Pete
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Oh, What a Knight © Walt Disney‘Oh What A knight’ can be regarded as an early forerunner of the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘Ye Olden Days‘ (1933).

Both shorts feature a medieval setting and both Oswald and Mickey are minstrels courting their love in a castle. However, where in ‘Ye Olden Days’ Goofy is the unlikely villain, Oswald’s opponent is Pete, who wears an anachronistic high hat.

Oswald serenades his sweetie Honey with an equally anachronistic accordeon. Soon, Oswald and Pete duel in grand adventure film-like manner, with Oswald kissing Honey between the fights. One scene in particular has beautifully animated shadows. In the final falling scene Honey loses her pants, and is shown naked. All characters are animated very flexibly: there’s a lot of stretching, falling apart etc.

‘Oh, What a Knight’ is a very entertaining entry in the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, and shows that Disney already went for high quality before the advent of Mickey.

Watch ‘Oh, What a Knight’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 20
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Hungry Hoboes
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Sky Scrappers

Director: Paul Driessen
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

De schrijver en de dood © Paul DriessenIn an old castle a medieval writer is writing such lively stories, it  attracts Death’s attention.

The writer tells a story about a peddler and his son, who has a touch of magic. All goes well, until Death comes in, and messes with the writer’s stories to ruin them and fill them with death and misery. Nevertheless, he fails to kill the son, who’s the writer’s main protagonist. With his magical powers the young boy escapes certain death several times. However, when in the end, the writer turns out to be same man as the little boy in his stories, Death has the last laugh.

‘De schrijver en de dood’ is one of Paul Driessen’s darkest and gloomiest films. His typical black humor is not absent, and is best visible in the little snapshots, which disrupt the story’s continuity for small morbid gags. But more than in any other of his films death is more disturbing than funny, and the sadness and misery are heartfelt. At the same time, it’s also one of Driessen’s most poetical films. The images are rich and full of fantasy, and in his own way Driessen creates a convincing medieval world to marvel at.

Watch ‘De schrijver en de dood’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘De schrijver en de dood’ is available on the DVD ‘The Dutch Films of Paul Driessen’

Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date:
 March 8, 1946
Stars:
 
Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

A Knight For A Day © Walt Disney‘A Knight for a Day’ is one of four Goofy cartoons directed by Jack Hannah, while Goofy’s usual director, Jack Kinney, was busy working on feature films ‘Make Mine Music’ and ‘Fun and Fancy Free‘.

Hannah, who shares Kinney’s love for fast and nonsensical cartoons, adopts the use of a jabbering sports reporter-like voice over, but applies it to a medieval setting, with hilarious results. Unlike Kinney’s Goofy cartoons however, Hannah’s cartoon consists of a real story with identifiable characters, splitting Goofy’s personality into various different ones.

During a medieval tournament, Cedric, a young squire, has to replace his master, Sir Loinsteak, when he falls with his head on an anvil, blocking him out. He has to face the champion, Sir Cumference, an evil opponent, who rides a black horse, smokes cigars and has a shield of bricks. Cedric wins the tournament, however, earning kisses from the ‘beautiful’ princess Esmeralda, who is another Goofy-like character.

‘A Knight for a Day’ is a fast and fervid cartoon, which is over before you know it.

Watch ‘A Knight for a Day’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 18
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Hockey Homicide
To the next Goofy cartoon: Double Dribble

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: April 8, 1933
Stars: Clarabelle Cow, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Ye Olden Days © Walt DisneyMickey and the gang are staged in many different times and places in their cartoons. Yet, this medieval short is the only cartoon in which they are introduced as actors performing their parts.

This idea of Mickey being an actor was first coined in ‘The Wayward Canary’ (1932) and played out to the max in ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier’ (1933). This cartoon nevertheless is played without any awareness of the public.

Minnie is the princess of Lalapazoo, and forced by her father to marry prince Goofy from Pupupadoo. Minnie refuses and is locked up in the high tower. Fortunately, there is minstrel Mickey to save her and to battle the evil prince, chasing him through the window, and marrying the princess himself. This adventure film cliche Disney already had visited in the Oswald cartoon ‘Oh, What A Knight‘, but it is expanded and improved in ‘Ye Olden Days’.

Like ‘Building a Building’ and ‘The Mad Doctor’ from the same year, this cartoon is partly a musical with lots of parts sung. It also contains a very anachronistic guillotine and an elaborately designed horse that shows the aspirations of the studio to master more lifelike designs and animation.

Goofy, who is introduced as Dippy Dawg, is quite miscast here, playing the villain, whom he acts out more sillily than threateningly. It seems that the animators didn’t really know what to do with the character, so far only funny because of his typical voice. So, after this film they dropped him for more than a year.

Watch ‘Ye Olden Days’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 55
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Mellerdrammer
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Mail Pilot

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