THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996) – My all-time favorite Disney movie

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      I must be a movie-going anomaly, because I consider The Disney Studio’s version of

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

    the best animated feature ever made. Victor Hugo purists have complained about the movie’s liberties (particularly with the comic relief of the three gargoyles, which I admit is a bit of a stretch for sidekicks). And the story, of course, is way too dark for anyone expecting a lighthearted Disney cartoon. But then, perhaps that’s part of the point.
      The movie was directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Those names are worth noting because they also directed Disney’s

Beauty and the Beast

    , which was the first-ever animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Obviously that gave the duo some clout to make pretty much what they wanted. They certainly chose one of the darker stories to animate, and it showed at the box office when it grossed only (only?) $96 million. But it is a story superbly told on all levels.
    The film’s opening scene tells, in song, how the hunchback was stolen from a gypsy by Claude Frollo, an evil judge (changed from a priest in the original story) who has a huge hang-up about gypsies. Frollo sees that the child is physically deformed and intends to drop him down a well, until a priest shames him into keeping the child as his own. He condescendingly names the child “Quasimodo” (meaning half-formed) and keeps him locked in a bell tower where he learns to ring the bells for the city of Paris. And in that first ten minutes, you’re thinking: These Disney guys are really serious.
    From there, the movie introduces Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and Frollo’s troubled officer Phoebus (Kevin Kline), both of whom come to befriend Quasimodo. Yet the movie doesn’t go for easy answers, and when the movie (controversially) ends happily, it feels quite earned. Because along the way, Quasimodo certainly needs a friend or two. Voiced by Amadeus’ Tom Hulce, he does a song called “Out There” in which Quasimodo expresses his longing to simply get out in the real world one day, and it beautifully lays the groundwork for everything that follows.
    That song is part of an unjustly overlooked score by Disney vets Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, and it’s only one element of the most underrated work you’ll find in animation. There’s an astounding scene where Frollo privately confesses his lust for Esmeralda, and as G-rated numbers go, it’s a pretty hard G.
    But I found it refreshing that the Disney group was willing to take some chances here, unlike their much safer audience-pleasers, such as the politically correct Pocahontas. For all of its happy ending, the movie doesn’t cop out, either. (SPOILER SENTENCE!)¬†Quasimodo doesn’t get the girl, but he gets something much better — he acceptance he has always craved. Disney movies have offered a lot less palatable messages. And for those who think that a Disney cartoon shouldn’t rattle anyone, I say: Remember what happened to Bambi’s mom?[

 

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) – One of Woody Allen’s bawdiest and best movies

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Most of Woody Allen’s 1990’s movies were so kind and polite, they’re almost anemic. (His musical Everyone Says I Love You was a charming concept, but was the movie’s Groucho Marx number at all necessary?) But with Deconstructing Harry, Allen regained some of his bite and managed to make his funniest movie in years.

Harry is a bit like Allen’s much-reviled Stardust Memories. As in that movie, Allen plays an artist (here, a writer named Harry Block) with a mental block and a predilection for troubled women. There are frequent movies-within-a-movie sprung from the artist’s brain. (My favorite is the movie actor who is literally always out of focus, providing Robin Williams with a perfect cameo.) And much of the story is told in flashback and jump-cuts, to reflect the artist’s fractured state of mind.

But at least in Harry, Allen is as unforgiving of his own character as he is of the others. Harry Block is shown as a swearing boozer, pill-popper, and regular customer of prostitutes. Judging from Allen’s public comments, I would guess he is very little like this in real life. But while the makers of As Good As It Gets have publicly crowed about creating an unsympathetic lead character, Allen has quietly done a far superior job of it.

And Allen’s revitalization has extended to his direction. Allen’s cast have been filled with an ever-growing list of big-name stars recently, but they usually don’t come off very well. Here, Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, and Demi Moore, among others, are quite satisfying. (Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s cuckolder seems almost an extension of her “Seinfeld” character.)

The world is divided between Woody Allen fans who delight in deconstructing his work, and detractors who have made careers out of Allen-bashing. Deconstructing Harry shows how entertainingly Allen can do the job for both sides.