Bell, Book, and Vandals

Demi Moore continues her one-woman assault on classic literature with her appearance in Disney's latest animated feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Less than a year after making critics see red by adding gratuitous nudity and a happy ending to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Moore -- or at least her voice -- romps through another upbeat update of a decidedly downbeat novel, this one by Victor Hugo. Moore provides the voice of Esmeralda, the provocative gypsy whose beauty lures the reclusive cathedral bell-ringer of the title out into the open. Technically, you don't actually see Moore; you just hear her. But there's no mistaking whose raven hair and saline-enhanced cleavage those sneaky Disney animators had in mind when they drew their Esmeralda.

The coy enchantress struts more stuff than any House of Mouse vamp since Jessica Rabbit, and she stirs lust in the loins of Quasimodo's evil, repressive guardian Judge Frollo. Distinguished British stage actor Tony Jay lends his voice to the hypocritical authority figure -- a powerful ruler who shares Jimmy Swaggart's inability to contain his sinful carnal impulses, and who will burn down Paris and persecute hundreds of innocent gypsies in order to find Esmeralda and quench his desire. Esmeralda also gets to noble soldier Phoebus (the voice of Kevin Kline), Frollo's captain of the guard, who eventually defies his cruel boss and risks his life to save the medieval riot grrrl. Wait till the fuddy-duddies who raised a hue and cry over Native American superbabe Pocahontas's cartoon comeliness get a load of this fifteenth-century vixen.

Moore's presence sums up Disney's latest foray into kiddie literature: vapid but gorgeous. The pulchritudinous actress who eviscerated the Hawthorne masterpiece exerted no influence on the story line this time around, but she didn't need to. Disney adapted this Hunchback to appeal more to her fans than to Victor Hugo's. The studio jettisoned Hugo's depressing denouement and replaced it with a conclusion that plays the Hunch for a hero. Then they added typical Disney touches, such as the main character's clowning sidekicks -- in this case a trio of dancing gargoyles, one of whom is voiced by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander. A Vanity Fair cover featuring a drawing of Demi/Esmi au naturel would not come as a surprise.

Even Lumpy gets a Disney makeover; instead of the hideously deformed creature of Hugo's imagination, we get a cleaned-up, merchandising-friendly Quasimodo. (God forbid the commercial-tie-in-conscious studio should risk frightening the kiddies who buy the licensed dolls or drag their parents to some fast-food joint to collect the promotional gewgaws.) Forget the definitive 1939 film highlighted by Charles Laughton's impassioned portrayal of a gnarled, Quasi-grotesquery; the Hunchback of Notre Disney looks about as threatening as a young Buddy Hackett after a few months of bodybuilding. Factor in Tom Hulce's boyish speaking and singing as the Hunchback, and you get a Quasimodo who wouldn't repulse a soul.

Despite all the liberties Disney takes with Hugo's story, the film exceeds expectations on one important level: It is absolutely stunning to look at, visually sumptuous. As you sit there totally enthralled by the vividness of the colors and the unprecedented sweep of the animation, it becomes hard to stay angry at the movie studio for softening up Hugo's tough tale. The depth and detail of the drawing takes your breath away; Hunchback looks more sophisticated and realistic than any animated film that's preceded it -- The Lion King included. Long after you've forgotten the lame musical interludes (featuring eight tunes penned by Disney's favored Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz duo) or the by-the-numbers comic relief, you'll remember the shafts of light streaming through the stained glass windows of Notre Dame, or the scene of Paris burning by night, or the city's teeming thoroughfares and marketplaces as viewed from Quasimodo's vertigo-inducing perch atop the storied cathedral's walls.

And yet optical magic doesn't sustain you after the movie ends and the house lights come up. The memory of the spectacular vistas quickly fades, and you exit the theater wishing Disney had the guts to trust Victor Hugo's vision. Had it hewed closer to its literary source, this Hunchback could have been a treasured gem rather than a showy bauble. Disney could have taken a lesson from Quasimodo: Looking great is a plus, but sometimes it's not enough to get you over the hump.

 
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