*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Watching this bowdlerisation of one of my favourite novels is probably
the nearest I will ever get to a mediæval-style penance such as wearing
I'm giving the film 4 stars for the quality of the animation: the cityscapes and the cathedral are beautifully realised. There are a few (very few) moments of expressionistic power: the 'Hellfire' sequence in particular reminded me of Musorgskii's 'Night on the Bald Mountain' in 'Fantasia', and suggests the story's real tragic, passionate heart, but... It's *not* my beloved 'Notre Dame de Paris'.
What it is is a sanitised, smugly 'feel-good' fable with a happy ending, trying to hitch a ride on a masterpiece by stealing a few character-names and concepts from the novel. It is heavily indebted to previous film versions which were also far from faithful. It follows the 1923 and 1939 films (which were prevented from depicting the clergy 'disrespectfully' by the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points' and the Hays Code respectively) in turning the Frollo brothers into a 'good' Archdeacon and an 'evil' secular judge, with the latter having Claude's tortured passion for Esmeralda. (Never mind the fact that without a conflict over his priestly vows of celibacy, this plot line is weakened drastically.) 'Judge' Frollo here even looks like Cedric Hardwicke from the 1939 film, down to his chaperon hat, although here he has at least been named Claude. (In the 1923 and 1939 versions, the sexually repressed 'evil' brother was Jehan, which is hilarious if you know the book!) This film also follows Hugo's stage version, 'La Esmeralda' (1835) and the 1923 film in de-sleazing Phbus and making him the romantic lead. (SPOILERS AHEAD) The death of the young mother, hitting her head on the steps, in the prologue seems to me to borrow from Pâquette's death near the end of the novel. In turn, I wonder if the scene of the burning of the miller's cottage influenced Roland Emmerich's 'The Patriot' (2000)?
While these changes are understandable in trying to make a film derived from a very adult novel palatable for children (and I appreciate that I'm *not* the target audience), I wonder *what was the point*? Surely it would have been better to write an *entirely original* story to express the desired themes, than tack it on to a classic? My fear is that it may have 'poisoned the well' for some younger viewers when it comes to approaching the book at a later stage. For one thing, it turns the novel on its head by making a smarmy, shallow playboy into a dashing romantic lead, and the almost Dostoevskian, intellectually brilliant but sexually and emotionally tormented young tragic hero/anti-hero into a sneering villain old enough to be his father! One of the most infuriating scenes is the adoption of Quasimodo. In the book, he is placed in the Cathedral as a foundling, aged about 4. Claude Frollo, already a priest at 19-20, adopts him out of genuine compassion, because he himself has just been orphaned and left with the care of his baby brother. The replacement of this deeply moving scene with a horrific crime is a grotesque distortion of character and tone.
My sole consolation is a personal fantasy of the book's Claude anathematising the entire Disney Corporation in full solemn ritual, with bell, book and candle. (I rather think he'd enjoy doing it, too!) I now have this nightmare of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy starring as 'The Krazy Karamazov Brothers': it no longer seems impossible...
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