[14 March 2013]
The late-‘90s output of Walt Disney Feature Animation occupies an odd place in the company’s legacy. After the escalating financial and critical triumphs of Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994), Disney’s release slate in the second half of the decade couldn’t help but succeed and disappoint all at once, as their annual releases were buoyed into hit status by the Disney brand while failing to hit the peaks of popularity or acclaim of the company’s just-designated new golden age.
Two of those movies, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Mulan (1998) make their Blu-ray debuts without quite the same fanfare as the biggest movies in the Disney vault; no designations of platinum, diamond, enchanted crystal, etc., need apply here. Yet both films are worth greater consideration than their slight also-ran reputations may imply, especially for fans of mainstream feature animation produced in the waning but still artistically vital years of the hand-drawn, 2D style.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is unusually ambitious even for a lush ‘90s Disney production, adapting a Victor Hugo novel rather than a fairy or folk tale. Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) is a meek, lonely creature imprisoned in a bell tower by his cruel father figure, Judge Frollo (Tony Jay). Quasimodo gets a taste of human kindness and real living when he sneaks out for Paris’s Festival of Fools and meets Esmerelda (Demi Moore), a free-spirited gypsy.
It might sound ridiculous that Disney rendered The Hunchback of Notre Dame as colorful family fun, but to be fair, it almost certainly sets the record for talk of hell, damnation, and murder in a G-rated movie. Judge Frollo’s obsession with crushing the city’s gypsy population intertwines with an obsessive crush on the comely Esmerelda, and his tormented anger reaches a fever pitch with “Hellfire”, a musical number powered by his all-consuming lust and self-loathing. It’s a stunning departure from, say, Pocahontas painting with all the colors of the wind, and has a more adult sense of psychology than, say, Scar the evil lion.
Of course, even with all of the hellfire business, Hugo’s novel is also filtered through the ‘90s Disney formula: Esmerelda is spunky; Quasi is a nice guy; and the Beauty and the Beast team of Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise concoct an ending slightly more melancholy than the Disney usual (Quasi’s love for Esmerelda remains unrequited) but far less ghoulish than Hugo’s book, which was, after all, written without concern for Happy Meal-friendliness. These tweaks are all probably necessary concessions to Disney’s status as a producer of family films; less excusable are the film’s forays into comedy – chiefly because they aren’t very funny. Quasimodo’s only friends are a trio of chattering gargoyles, a bizarre intrusion of both magic and wackiness for a movie that otherwise has little of either.
Indeed, the gargoyles are the movie’s only fantastical element, and their vamping doesn’t produce enough laughs to keep them from jutting out uncomfortably. On the disc’s commentary track, the filmmakers mention how Hugo, in the original novel, implies that the gargoyles in the bell tower are alive to Quasimodo. It’s a neat justification that the movie nonetheless smothers with loud shtick before dropping it all together (the gargoyles barely interact with the world outside the tower… until the movie’s climax requires an aping of Beauty and the Beast‘s and has all three of them perform feats of slapstick battle heroics as Frollo’s men lay siege upon Quasimodo’s home).
The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s technical and thematic ambition ultimately overshadow its missteps into outright wackiness. The film is beautifully animated, with passages that seem like practice for the bigger, swoopier sights of Tarzan (1999), and looks stunning in a high-definition transfer. Visually, the movie is among the studio’s best—though its audio, I concede, shows a clear downturn from early ‘90s Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz song-score has echoes of pop-opera in the manner of that other famous Hugo adaptation, Les Miserables, and in keeping with both that style and Menken’s post-Howard Ashman output in general, it is only sporadically catchy.
Two years later, Disney’s musical obligation feels even more dismal: songs of Mulan are worse, and far more tacked on; there’s no singing in the last third of the movie, as if sheepishly acknowledging that the songs are there to check off a genre box and kill some screentime. The commentaries on both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan (imported from earlier DVD releases) are earnest, betraying little conflict or compromise beyond the usual early-stages story tinkering, and generally painting a picture of late ‘90s Disney as a well-oiled machine. It probably was, yet there’s still something slightly dispiriting about hearing the Mulan filmmakers describe the movie as a comedy, drama, action movie and musical all in one (when one of them talks about how gags featuring underwear with hearts all over them are always good for a big laugh, it’s equal parts homage to classic animation tropes and chilling celebration of hackery).
Genre-mixing can be exhilarating, of course, but Mulan pretty clearly doesn’t need to straddle four or five narrative categories to work as family entertainment. The story of a Chinese girl (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) who masquerades as a man to take her elderly father’s place in battle has an engaging simplicity without musical numbers and wacky sidekicks to goose up investment levels. That said, Mulan‘s tone is a bit more adventuresome than The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s, which makes its all-in-one triangulating less obtrusive (and at least Eddie Murphy, voicing Mulan’s miniature dragon sidekick Mushu, is actually amusing).
As with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan‘s visual storytelling also trumps its textual limitations – and in some ways, Mulan is even more visually accomplished than The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At first glance, the animation appears simpler and cartoonier, but its curved lines and open landscapes are even more striking—plus speedier and smoother, with more stylized “camera” movements. A mid-movie avalanche sequence makes spectacular use of semi-negative space, nearly drowning the heroes and villains in a sea of white.
Mulan also holds the advantage of a smart, strong heroine—not just a superhot princess figure afforded some token agency. Actually, both Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame downplay the fairy-tale romance of Disney classics. But each perform more or less the same repair, replacing the studly prince figure with still-strapping but more sensitive man’s-men (Kevin Kline’s voice brings the version in The Hunchback of Notre Dame a little closer to handsome-prince parody) – even when bucking their own clichés, convention still lurks.
Along with previously released special features, these nineties-Disney time capsules arrive bearing, curiously, what had previously and correctly been deemed something of an embarrassment: both movies are packaged with their direct-to-video sequels, hallmarks of the relatively fallow early-aughts era, where a pre-Lasseter Disney went a little crazy with the low-budget franchising, applying Roman numeral “II” to just about everything in their back catalog (the Mulan packaging even gives the sequel equal billing, while The Hunchback of Notre Dame is more discreet). The inclusion of the sequels suggests either that Disney thinks the original films need a value-added proposition to entice consumers, or that the likes of Hunchback II might not sell so well on their own.
A decade or so later, it’s still a little mind-boggling that brand-conscious Disney allowed these movies to happen. Watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame II on Blu-ray after the detailed original only exacerbates the sequel’s TV quality, particularly when it comes to Quasimodo’s deformed face—expressive in the first movie, sloppy and scribbly in the second. The Hunchback of Notre Dame II both addresses and cheapens the previous movie’s notes of melancholy, as it sets about finding Quasimodo a romantic partner – voiced, why not, by Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Mulan II (which at least features a more fluid, if still flat, imitation of the original’s look) also focuses more on the romance avoided by the first movie, shoving Mulan and her warrior boyfriend Shang straight into a marriage plot. In addition to the dopey romance, both sequels also introduce little kid characters who look up to the established hero – these movies clearly follow a Disney direct-to-video sequel template, a kind of shadow formula that mostly serves to make the earlier films’ formulas seem more sophisticated in retrospect.
In both cases, it’s the application of the numeral “II” to both movies that chafes the most, conferring a sense of companionship on what are basically long-form Saturday morning cartoons. Maybe their presence alongside the original films on Blu-ray, ridiculous and borderline embarrassing as it may seem, can serve as a reminder that Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as products of nineties juggernaut Disney, had to navigate a complicated network of storytelling and business formulas that didn’t always end with production on the film. But the artistry in even their slight variations remains impressive and well-preserved.