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A darker Disney by far
on 13 December 2006
Although none have truly embraced the full scope of Victor Hugo's sweeping novel (although the 1956 version comes close), there's never been a bad version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Disney's 1996 version is one of the very best. It has its flaws, but it's still the studio's last great animated feature, with a visual audacity and a surprising darkness that's often breathtaking. It may opt for an even happier ending than usual, but there's plenty of real dramatic power here. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's mostly excellent score may have the odd crowd-pleaser that lowers the tone a tad, but there's a striking and powerful grandeur of ambition to many of them - after all, who'd have expected a Disney villain to sing of his tortured sexual desire (Heaven's Light/Hellfire) and of his burning need to either sleep with the heroine or kill her? The computer enhanced crowd scenes and the sweeping three-dimensional camerawork are amazing to see, the design is superb and there's an intelligent use of colour and weather that the studio's subsequent efforts seemed to lose. Only the wiseacre gargoyle sidekicks feel out of place, although the film at least discreetly suggests that they are mere figments of Quasimodo's imagination. One of the most impressive of Disney's animated features, and certainly the most undervalued.
Although far from the excellent laserdisc special edition Disney released in the US several years ago, there are a few decent extras on the UK disc, including an alternate song and some interesting demo footage of the computer animation techniques. The Blu-ray release, typically for titles Disney regards as disappointments, is much more hreadbare: a half hour making of eaturette from the film's original release that isn't included on the DVD and a multi-language reel (though the US Blu-ray also includes an audio commentary and the direct-to-video sequel).