Striking animation and cute gargoyles do not a kiddie movie make.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame," the latest animated film from the Disney conglomerate, has some catchy songs and some amazing images. It also teaches lessons about prejudice and self-esteem.
But it really isn't appropriate for Disney's bread-and-butter audience, the little kids who are too young for the latest action flick.
Evidence: A lot of them started whining and screaming in the middle of a screening of "Hunchback" this week. And there is at least one scene that was so dark, it cried out for a PG rating.
That doesn't mean "Hunchback" is a bad movie; parts of it are pretty wonderful. It simply suffers from wild mood swings and should probably see a doctor.
The story of Quasimodo is narrated almost operatically by the jokester Clopin (Paul Kandel). Tom Hulce, of "Amadeus" fame, stars as the voice of the gentle hunchback, who lives in the cathedral of Notre Dame in 15th-century Paris under the reluctant and scanty care of Frollo (Tony Jay), the wicked judge who hides under a cloak of righteousness.
Frollo has taught Quasimodo that the world is cruel, especially to monsters" like the hunchback, so Quasimodo is afraid to leave his beautiful prison. He spends his time ringing the bells in the impressively visualized cathedral, chatting with his gargoyle friends and building little models of the forbidden world that he sees from the parapets.
While viewing the frantic Feast of Fools from a precarious perch, Quasimodo slips and finds himself in the middle of the crowd. To his delight, he's crowned the King of Fools, but soon the fearful crowd turns on him, egged on by Frollo's guards.
Then, Esmeralda (Demi Moore), a saucy Gypsy dancer who exemplifies the tradition of voluptuous Disney babes, helps rescue him, making an enemy of Frollo and a friend of the handsome and courageous captain of the guards, Phoebus (the always-delightful Kevin Kline).
Thus the events of the film are set in motion -- Quasimodo's protective crush on Esmeralda, Esmeralda's love for Phoebus, and Frollo's obsessive desire for Esmeralda.
It is the latter that forms the basis of the disturbing scene in which Frollo sings "Hellfire," saying that he's burning for Esmeralda and will either have her or consign her to the flames. As he sings, the flames and smoke in his fireplace dance seductively in her form, and the walls morph into menacing, red-cloaked figures. Shadows of crosses loom over him. It's very creepy, and way too mature for tots.
His vengeful quest to find her after she escapes has him burning half the city, but not much else happens in the middle of the film. Several songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz ruminate on everything from Frollo's persecution of the Gypsies to Quasimodo's unfulfilled desire for the love of a woman. Some of the songs use words that will have parents, let alone children, running to their dictionaries.
Occasionally brightening all the darkness are quips from the gargoyles, named Victor (Charles Kimbrough of "Murphy Brown"), Hugo (Jason Alexander of "Seinfeld") and Laverne (the late Mary Wickes). Especially amusing is the ironic, chipper tune "A Guy Like You," in which the gargoyles sing about how unique and appealing Quasimodo is, with the help of wacky, whimsical images.
A spectacular action finale will regain the attention of most children. It looks a bit like the French Revolution, sans guillotine; the crowd conveniently brings along shovels and pitchforks, always helpful in a riot.
Although he's the gargoyles' namesake, Victor Hugo is no doubt doing somersaults in his grave at the transformation of his classic tale, because, of course, the bad guy gets his comeuppance and everyone else gets a happy ending.
The denouement is lovely and sweet, but it's a little like trying to enjoy dessert when your mouth has been burned by the main course.
'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'
Starring The voices of Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Tony Jay, Kevin Kline
Directed by Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Released by Walt Disney Pictures
Rated G (violence, lust)
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 6/21/96