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Courting Controversy? Disney’s Newest Animated Feature, ‘Hunchback Of Notre Dame,’ Takes On Sensitive Adult Issues

Murderous prejudice. Sexual hysteria. Religious hypocrisy. Literary sacrilege. Exploiting the handicapped.

Yes, it’s time for that old Disney magic.

The studio’s 34th animated feature, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” opened Friday. Like most of Disney’s recent hand-drawn musicals, it’s expected to be a huge commercial success and another advance on the animation aesthetic. But like such blockbusters as “Pocahontas,” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s complex, tragic classic could find itself courting controversy over any of the elements listed above.

“It’s a cartoon landmine,” cracks Kirk Wise, who - along with partner Gary Trousdale - directed the Oscar-nominated “Beauty and the Beast” last time out. “As filmmakers, it’s really our job to tell the best story the best way that we know how. But I think that these movies have such a high profile these days …”

“… That we have a great big bull’s-eye painted on us,” Trousdale interjects.

“Well, I think people are always looking for controversy and are ready to be offended,” Wise continues. “But if we concentrated on trying to please everyone and not to offend a single soul, the films would be so watered down that we’d be making a Care Bears movie. That would be creative suicide.”

True enough. But the very fact that Disney cartoon features are watched and re-watched - sometimes scores of times - by impressionable children naturally leads to hypersensitivity about whatever intentional or inadvertent messages they impart.

While new media technologies such as video cassettes have intensified such concerns, they’ve actually been around since Disney’s first animated fairy tale, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” As many of the talents associated with “Notre Dame” like to note, an innocent deer got its heart cut out in that 1937 groundbreaker. Walt’s subsequent productions of “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Bambi,” “Dumbo” and others all triggered uncounted youthful nightmares. They often managed to reinforce unsavory racial caricatures, and their sexual politics were no bargain either.

But with ethnic pride, gender sensitivity and parental watchfulness on the rise throughout recent years, criticism has grown right alongside box-office records. Sometimes the outrage was justifiable; other times it seemed a bit absurd.

Arab-American groups were understandably upset by lyrics in an Alan Menken/Howard Ashman “Aladdin” song that attributed barbaric traits to their forebears. On the other hand, one has to wonder what kind of dirty minds thought they were hearing “Go on children, take off your clothes,” when Aladdin tries to shoo away a tiger with the words “Go on, kitty. Take off. Go.”

There was logic behind parents’ anxiety that the violent death of Simba’s father in “The Lion King” would upset some children. It took somewhat more effort to find racism in the fact that the film’s hyenas were voiced by people of color - just two of the speaking actors in an integrated cast.

The biggest outcry to date was raised over last summer’s “Pocahontas.” Despite its politically correct messages of female empowerment, peaceful coexistence and cross-cultural respect, the heroine’s sexiness riled feminists; some Native Americans thought that genocide was criminally ignored; and historical sticklers complained that the cartoon wasn’t accurate enough (hey, did trees really talk in the 17th century?).

Nothing about the fictional “Hunchback” should push buttons quite as hot as those “Pocahontas” found. But the potential is there. To begin with, Hugo’s big, complex novel has been inevitably Disneyfied, with a somewhat cuddlier Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce), the invention of three wacky gargoyle pals and, of course, a happy ending.

Yet literary purists may have less to grouse about than those who think Disney entertainment should mean purer than the driven snow. The Gypsy dancer Esmeralda has enough curves to make Pocahontas look like a boy; moreover, her voice is provided by Demi Moore - who, one week after “Hunchback’s” opening, will be taking it off in “Striptease” on screens nationwide.

What may be more incendiary is that Esmeralda is not just an object of desire both for the cloistered Quasimodo and the handsome, heroic Phoebus (Kevin Kline). She also turns on the twisted Frollo (Tony Jay), who is archdeacon of 15th-century Paris, a self-righteous sadist and the persecutor of all things Romany. When he’s not lusting after Esmeralda, he’s either putting down her people, cruelly crushing his ward Quasimodo’s self-esteem or acting holier than any other zealot within an earshot of Notre Dame’s bell tower.

And it’s all rated G.

Having weathered previous protests with little damage to ticket sales or ancillary merchandising, the Disney folks aren’t very worried. Still, they’d prefer that their family-fun image not be besmirched by any unhappy Mouseketeers.

“By the very nature of selecting this novel for filming, it implies a certain amount of sophistication,” explains “Notre Dame” producer Don Hahn, whose previous animation credits include “Beauty,” “Lion King” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” “This material does not have as many potential pitfalls. But we don’t sit around saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to offend this group or support that group.’ We always try to hit a broad range of audiences.”

“The only controversy I’ve heard about the movie is certain people’s opinion that, ‘Well, it’s OK for me, but it might disturb somebody else,”’ says Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation. “We’ve test-screened it all over the country, and I’ve heard nobody, parents or children, complain about any of the issues. I think, for example, the issue of disabilities is treated with great respect. Quasimodo is really the underdog who becomes the hero; I don’t think there’s anything better for anybody’s psychological feelings than to become the hero of a movie. The only thing we’ve been asked to be careful about is the word hunchback, which we have to use in the title.”

The “Notre Dame” production involved well over 600 people, including more than 100 artists working at Disney’s newest animation facility in Hugo’s homeland, France. And it’s doubtful any of them set out to offend. But many did want to expand the limits of what animated musicals could address. Composer Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, for example, dreamed up a number called “Hellfire,” in which Frollo is taunted by fiery images of Esmeralda as he cries to Heaven, blaming his repressed desire on her supposedly Satanic witchcraft.

“Thank you, they say happily,” Schwartz responds when told that “Hellfire” is probably the darkest song ever to grace a Disney musical. “It was a similar thing to when we first wrote ‘Colors of the Wind’ (for ‘Pocahontas’); we thought the Disney brass would never go for this because it’s much more philosophical and a whole different tone than anything they’ve ever done before. But they embraced it completely. It’s certainly the number I’m proudest of, personally, because it really pushes the boundaries of what animation’s done before in terms of psychological complexity, story subtext and adult connotations.”

A Broadway lyricist whose credits include “Godspell,” Schwartz does not expect complaints about Frollo’s false piety from the conservative religious community. “People don’t give them quite as much credit as they deserve,” he says of viewers often thought of as ultra-conservative, and ultra-touchy.

“I’ve done several shows on religious subjects, and if they feel you’ve done something honest and thoughtful, they’re actually very supportive. Things that I thought would be enormously controversial were not only accepted, but embraced.”

Yeah, but those things didn’t look, move and sound like Demi Moore. Not only was the actress central to what Hollywood now calls the “Scarlet Letter” effect - the financial and critical drubbing of a radical adaptation of classic literature - she’s also got a reputation as an erotic provocateur. But then, so does Esmeralda - and she’s had hers since her first appearance, in 1831.

“We knew that she had to be a very beautiful, exotic and sensual character,” director Wise says. “That’s the way Hugo described her, and her beauty had to literally drive men mad, in the case of Frollo.”

“She also had to make three men fall in love with her right there at first sight,” co-director Trousdale adds.

Those concerned with the image of the Romany people may not appreciate the movie’s characterizations of Gypsies as sexpots and tricksters. Once again, though, such depictions go back to Hugo, and he, like the Disney team, ultimately saw Gypsies as an unjustly oppressed minority.

“I don’t think you get a stereotypical view of Gypsies in the movie,” says actor Paul Kandel, who provides the voice for the Gypsy leader Clopin. “I think what you get is an environment in which the underclass is represented by Gypsies. The way they are viewed by the people in power can be recognized by any underclass in any developed society. The issues that are addressed in the film are provocative, very contemporary issues, and that’s a valuable thing. So, if some controversy is created, that means that the movie is stimulating people to think. Which would be very nice.”

Well, maybe. Disney would probably be just as happy if viewers were simply amazed by the depth and complexity of the feature - if audiences found it a worthy successor to a proud tradition.


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