*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Watching this bowdlerisation of one of my favourite novels is probably
the nearest I will ever get to a mediaeval-style penance such as
wearing a hairshirt. I'm giving the film 4 stars only 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
What it is is a sanitised, smug, '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 Hollywood 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 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 AHOY) The death of Quasimodo's 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 inspired Roland Emmerich's 'The Patriot' (2000)?
While these changes are understandable in trying to make a film for children from a very adult novel (and I appreciate that I'm *not* the target audience), I wonder *why* they did it? What was the point? Surely it would have made more sense to write an *entirely original* story to express the desired themes, than grafting it parasitically on to a classic? For one thing, it turns the novel on its head by making a smarmy, shallow playboy into a dashing romantic lead, and the proto-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, adopts him out of genuine compassion, because he himself has just been orphaned and left to care for his baby brother. This poignant scene is replaced with a horrific crime. Claude is also depicted as a cruel 'parent', keeping Quasimodo imprisoned in the cathedral and instilling an inferiority complex: in the book, he teaches the boy basic literacy (despite his physical and learning disabilities), and devises sign-language for him when he loses his hearing. The film perpetrates a grotesque distortion of character and tone.
Worse, this film has 'poisoned the well' for at least some younger viewers when they later approach the book, judging by some online book reviews. For every one that has embraced entering Hugo's stunning but heartbreaking universe, there are several who complain that the novel "isn't like the Disney film"; that "none of the characters are sympathetic" or "likeable" (really?! I read it in my mid-teens and fell in love with the Archdeacon of Josas at first read!), that there's too much about alchemy or architecture or philosophy or human sexuality My sole consolation is imagining Dom 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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