The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise)

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

This project made no sense to me when I first learned of its existence a couple of years ago, and it still makes no sense to me now that I've seen the result. I can only imagine that, come 1998, we'll be lining up to see Walt Disney's The Glass Menagerie, in which Laura's anthropomorphic collection will help her find a sense of self-esteem and marry the Gentleman Caller. (And maybe Tom will go off in search of his dad as the credits roll. You know, I'm trying to be sarcastic here, but I'm scared by how credible this actually seems -- it's really no more ridiculous than what's been done to Hugo's story, and the menagerie would make ideal funny sidekicks. Maybe I should pitch it.) Okay, the animation is stunning -- the background artists, in particular, really outdid themselves -- and a few aspects of the revamped narrative are appealing, but why this story? With all of the terrific material currently on bookshelves from which a solid family movie might be adapted, why select a well-known tragic novel, one that will have to be distorted so flagrantly that anyone familiar with the source will spend the entire movie wincing? "Yes yes," I hear you mutter impatiently, "but does it work on its own debased terms?" Sorta. I couldn't abide cutesy, cuddly "Quasi" and his singing, wisecracking gargoyles, but I did get a kick out of Kevin Kline's deadpan Phoebus -- a hero who spends most of the movie getting whomped -- and was less irritated than I'd expected by Esmerelda, voiced by the eminently irritating Demi Moore. The animation, as I said, is frequently breathtaking. And then there's Frollo...a fine character (well acted by Tony Jay), but also the focus of what is easily the most disturbing, wacked-out sequence in a Disney animated feature since 1941 and "Pink Elephants on Parade," about which I will say nothing more save "Whoa." In fact, that scene alone would be the worth the price of admission, had the song it illustrates not been so utterly undistinguished. In fact, Hunchback features the worst set of musical numbers in Disney history; there isn't a single memorable song in the entire film, and the lyrics, courtesy Steven Schwartz, are deplorable. Rest in peace, Mr. Ashman -- you are sorely missed.