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Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Tony Jay, Kevin Kline, Paul Kandel, Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, Mary Wickes, David Ogden Stiers, Heidi Mollenhauer
Tab Murphy, based on the novel by Victor Hugo

Box Office:
Budget $70 million.
Opening weekend $21.3 million on screens.
Domestic gross $100.117 million.
Rated PG for violence and sensuality.

Academy Awards:
Nominated for Best Score.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
English; Closed-captioned

Runtime: 91 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 3/19/2002

• Audio Commentary With Producer Don Hahn and Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale
• “The Making of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
• “Topsy Turvy” Sing-Along Song
• “A Guy Like You” Multi-Language Reel
• Topsy Turvy Underground Game

Music soundtrack

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame combines the best and the worst tendencies of Disney animation. At its best, the retelling of the Victor Hugo classic provides some of Disney’s most rich and vibrant story telling, and it can be very powerful at times. However, the filmmakers occasionally shoot themselves in the feet, as they can’t quite let themselves go and allow the movie to reach its full potential.

In the Disney version of the tale, we start with a prologue. We meet the mother of baby Quasimodo, a gypsy chased through the streets of Paris by nasty Claude Frollo (Tony Jay). She dies, and Frollo intends to kill the child after he discovers Quasi’s misshapen form. However, the archdeacon of Notre Dame (David Ogden Stiers) halts the murder and uses the power of the church to order Frollo to care for the child.

This he does, but only in a very basic - and semi-abusive - manner, as he restricts Quasimodo (voice acted by Tom Hulce as an adult) to the bell tower of the Notre Dame cathedral. Isolated from the world, he creates his own fantasy friends with the gargoyles who surround him; in that regard, he interacts with Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander) and Laverne (Mary Wickes).

Quasi’s life remains simple until the annual Festival of Fools starts. He’s always fantasized about visiting this celebration, and with the “urging” of the gargoyles, he dares to venture down to the streets. There he encounters sexy gypsy Esmerelda (Demi Moore), an enchantress who pulls him onstage for the King of Fools competition. Of course, he wins, but things take a turn for the worse when the crowd discovers Quasi’s face is his own, not a mask. Matters become dark when Frollo confronts his charge, so Quasi and Esmerelda have to make a quick escape, and she takes sanctuary in the cathedral.

Along the way we meet Frollo’s new captain of the guard, Phoebus (Kevin Kline). Called back from the wars specifically to suppress the gypsy population, Phoebus lacks much interest in his new job, but he tries to carry it out as a dutiful soldier. However, he doesn’t factor in his meeting with Esmerelda; sparks fly, and it quickly becomes clear that the two connect. This doesn’t sit well with Quasiomodo, who develops a crush on Esmerelda. To complicate matters, Frollo obviously has his own issues; he lusts for Esmerelda, and he acts out to combat the desires he interprets as negative.

The movie essentially follows this love quadrangle. Frollo obsesses over his desire to eradicate the gypsies and launches violent crusades against them. Phoebus eventually stands up against Frollo’s senseless attacks and becomes an outlaw. Quasimodo tries to deal with all these issues, including his competition with Phoebus and his relationship with Frollo.

At its best, Hunchback offers one of the strongest releases ever from Disney. When I saw it theatrically in 1996, I felt genuinely astounded by the complexity of parts of the piece. Disney animation definitely offered some dark moments prior to Hunchback; starting with the wicked queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and running through others bits like Mufasa’s death in The Lion King, not all of these films consisted solely of sweetness and light.

I felt that parts of Hunchback took these tendencies to a new level, mainly because of the increased frequency of them. The film possessed a more consistently dark tone as a whole that made it different than most other Disney offerings. Hunchback includes some startlingly intense moments. From Frollo’s “Hellfire” tune through the pursuit of the gypsies, the film provides quite a few instances of unusually heavy segments that clearly pushed the envelope of their normal “family” fare; though it received a “G” rating, Hunchback really deserved a “PG”.

The opening sequence to Hunchback is terrifically strong, and much of the rest of the film follows along those lines. It never quite regains the power of the prologue and immediate introduction to Quasimodo, but it certainly stays in positive territory much of the time. Despite my customary aversion to musicals, I think Hunchback uses the form to its best advantage. Songs make sense thematically and they blend together seamlessly much of the time. The first scenes in which we meet adult Quasi and see his interactions with Frollo demonstrate this, as the music and score effortlessly move among characters and themes.

So where does Hunchback fall flat? In regard to its comic relief. Put simply, the film includes too many inappropriately wacky moments, and they come at the expense of the drama. Some of this material works well. After the powerful “Hellfire” number, the filmmakers have a noticeably weary Frollo deliver a subtle little line that helps defuse some of the tension, but not in a gratuitous way; the joke alleviates a little heaviness without seeming inappropriate.

Unfortunately, much of the comedy does appear unsuitable for this film, mainly because of those stupid gargoyles. They pop up at all the wrong moments, and they effectively wreck a lot of tense scenes. During the climactic battle, their goofiness deflates the power of the struggle, and right in the midst of some of the movie’s darkest scenes, the filmmakers decided to plop the inanely peppy “A Guy Like You”, a tune that essentially rips off Aladdin’s “A Friend Like Me”.

While the gargoyles and some of the other comic bits don’t ruin the flick, they restrict its potential greatness. Had the filmmakers been willing to go all the way, The Hunchback of Notre Dame might have been one of the finest Disney movies ever. I certainly respected and admired the depth they lent to much of the piece, but they seemed afraid to follow those parts to their natural conclusions. Even with its flaws, however, I still really like Hunchback, and it remains one of my favorite Disney flicks. It doesn’t follow through on its potential, but it works very well for the most part.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio B / Bonus B-

The Hunchback of Notre Dame appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though much of the picture looked absolutely terrific, a variety of continuing problems

Sharpness appeared excellent. The film always remained very crisp and detailed, and I saw no signs of softness or fuzziness. It was a nicely distinct and well-defined presentation at all times. I also witnessed no indications of jagged edges, moiré effects or edge enhancement.

Colors seemed stunning. Hunchback boasted a lovely and rich palette that varied from soft pastels to burning reds, and the DVD duplicated these wonderfully well. The various hues virtually leapt off the screen, as they appeared vivid and vibrant from start to finish. Black levels also came across as deep and dense, and shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but never overly thick.

So far, so great, right? Unfortunately, Hunchback lost major points due to print flaws. Light grain appeared through much of the film, and I saw a mix of speckles, grit, blotches and marks. While I can’t say that these became overwhelming, they did cause distractions, and they seemed excessive for a fairly recent movie. These defects alone led me to lower my grade to a “B”, as I felt they took away from the presentation too heavily to warrant a higher mark.

The soundtracks of The Hunchback of Notre Dame possess no fatal flaws, but they also don’t do much to stand out from the crowd. The DVD includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. To these ears, the two sounded virtually identical. Hunchback wasn’t a sonic feast anyway, and I found both tracks to present very similar audio.

I always thought 1996 was a great summer for movie sound. Twister remains one of my favorite demo discs, and we also got terrific mixes like those for The Rock and Independence Day. While Hunchback provided a decent auditory experience, it wasn’t in that league. The soundfield mainly stayed with a bias toward the front speakers. Within that spectrum, music displayed very good stereo imaging and presence, while effects also offered strong delineation and movement. The front realm gave us a clear and well-blended environment in which elements panned smoothly.

Surround usage seemed somewhat limited, though it worked reasonably well for the film. The rear speakers mainly reinforced effects and music. On some occasions, decent split surround material appeared, but those instances happened fairly infrequently. The back channels added dimensionality to the proceedings but not to a huge degree.

Audio quality appeared good but not great. Dialogue came across as reasonably natural and distinct, and I heard no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. Music appeared clear and bright but seemed somewhat thin; the score and songs lacked substantial low-end response. Effects seemed moderately similar. Although some loud moments featured good bass - like blasts or thumps - a lot of the time the track failed to deliver a lot of pleasing warmth. Ultimate, Hunchback provided a good sonic piece, but it fell short of becoming a terrific track.

While not a full-fledged special edition, this DVD of The Hunchback of Notre Dame does pack a few extras, many of which ported over from the 1997 deluxe laserdisc release. First up we find an audio commentary from producer Don Hahn and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. If you heard their track for Atlantis: The Lost Empire, you’ll know what to expect here. Although at least four years separated the taping of the two commentaries, you’d be hard-pressed to notice, as they both come across with similar tones.

All three men were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track, and it’s a good one. They touch on a wide variety of topics. We learn of how the movie compares to the original book, technical challenges and techniques, working with the actors, and many other issues. They even point out many of the inside jokes along the way, and they keep things light and breezy the whole time. It’s a chatty and entertaining piece that offers a lot of good information about Hunchback. Can’t wait for their track for Beauty and the Beast!

Next we discover another retread from the laserdisc boxed set. The Making of The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs 28 minutes and offers a fluffy look at the film. Hosted by Jason Alexander, the program includes a large number of interview participants. We hear from producer Hahn, directors Trousdale and Wise, actors Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Kevin Kline, Tony Jay, Charles Kimbrough, and Heidi Mollenhauer (the singing voice for Esmerelda), co-producer Roy Conli, art director Dave Goetz, layout supervisor Ed Ghertner, background supervisor Lisa Keene, visual effects supervisor Christopher Jenkins, composer Alan Menken, and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, as well as animators Dave Pruiksma, James Baxter, Tony Fucile, Russ Edmonds, Kathy Zielinski and Will Finn.

Whew - that’s a lot of folks! However, don’t expect much depth, for virtually none of them offer more than one or two lines of information. This show maintains a very rapid pace as it gives us a superficial look at the animation process. Alexander provides some moderately amusing comic moments, and the program will offer a gentle introduction to the subject for newbies, but there’s virtually nothing memorable here. It seems like a particular disappointment when compared to the terrific documentary that accompanies Atlantis.

The remaining extras are pretty minor. We get a Sing-Along Song for “Topsy Turvy” plus a Multi-Language Reel for “A Guy Like You”. Though the latter implies that it’ll include 31 different tongues, in fact we only hear 16. It’s a cute piece but not anything more than that.

Also frilly but surprisingly fun is the Topsy Turvy Underground Game. Essentially this lets you remix the sound effects for three different short sequences. It’s played totally for laughs, and it works; it seems like an entertaining little piece.

When you start the DVD, you’ll find ads for some other Disney flicks. There’s a promo for the hotly anticipated DVD video release of Beauty and the Beast. The trailer highlights the inclusion of “Human Again”, the song added for the IMAX theatrical release of Beauty. In addition, the DVD opens with promos for Tarzan and Jane, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Max Keeble’s Big Move, and Disney DVD as a whole. These clips also can be found in the Sneak Peeks area alongside additional ads for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Schoolhouse Rock, and American Legends.

As I noted earlier, Hunchback once appeared as a deluxe laserdisc boxed set, and this DVD doesn’t remotely attempt to duplicate that set. The audio commentary, the documentary, and the multi-language reel all showed up on the LD, whereas the other features are new. We lose tons of stillframe materials as well as deleted songs and a slew of other pieces. Frankly, Hunchback wasn’t one of Disney’s better LD boxed sets; others like The Lion King and Toy Story blew it away - but it still easily surpasses what we find on this DVD.

Despite the disappointing absence of so many extras, I still have to recommend The Hunchback of Notre Dame for one simple reason: it’s a terrific movie. It clearly suffers from some flaws, but it remains one of my favorites, and it works nicely overall. The DVD offers generally positive picture and sound plus a very good audio commentary and a few other supplements. While the disc could have been better, this release seems strong enough to merit your attention.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6563 Stars Number of Votes: 259
4 3:
View Averages for all rated titles.