Ryan and I are coming up on the back half of the Disney Renaissance, which reminds me a lot of the risks the animation studio took during the "Dark Ages" of the 70s and early 80s. The storytellers in place at the time were concerned with telling different kinds of stories that were a little darker, a little more complicated. The reason the experiment failed in the 70s and 80s while it (largely) succeeded in the late 90s is absolutely the production quality; while they had to cut corners at almost every opportunity with Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron, their previous successes allowed them to do some really amazing stuff with their animation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. That, combined with great stories passionately told, mark a string of underappreciated gems from Disney in the late 90s. They are absolutely worth another look if you've been sleeping on them.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
This one is a legitimate surprise. Continuing the maturation of the storytelling that started with Pocahontas, Walt Disney Studios adapted Victor Hugo's classic novel as a G-rated musical adventure. The fact that a movie dealing with the concepts of lust, sin, damnation and religious hypocrisy received a G Rating from the MPAA might be the only proof you need that the ratings board doesn't know what it's doing. Still, this turned out to be one of my favorite Disney animated movies -- it's that good.
Quasimodo is the titular hunchback, a deformed young man whose mother was a gypsy killed by a severe judge named Frollo on the steps of Notre Dame. Caught by a priest as he was about to throw the young child down a well, Frollo agrees to "care for" Quasimodo as penance for killing someone on church grounds. In this case, caring for means locking him away inside the church's bell tower and emotionally manipulating him into fearing the world he so desperately wants to be a part of.
Both Quasimodo and Frollo are legitimately fascinating characters. Quasimodo wants nothing more than to be a part of the world he observes and loves passionately; he adores the people that he sees and wants to be out among them. Frollo, on the other hand, only sees wickedness and sin wherever he looks at the world. They are perfect foils for each other, and perfect examples of the old adage that "you will only see in the world what you see within yourself".
Frollo's mission to hunt down and pretty much eradicate gypsies in Paris runs smack into conflict with his feelings for Esmerelda, a homeless dancer who befriends Quasimodo once he sneaks out during a Festival of Fools. The poor hunchback learns some very hard lessons about the world when he finally gets the chance to be out in it, and for a moment it seems that Frollo was right. But his desire to love and be loved overrides his cynicism, and the sheer power of his yearning is at once inspiring and relatable. Even though he is quite possibly the most unusual-looking hero in the Disney canon, Quasimodo is the one that I've felt the strongest emotional connection with.
And perhaps that's because Frollo is so horrific. His "villain's song" is one of the most intense and disturbing in a Disney movie, wonderfully exposing the warring impulses within him. When he lays himself bare, you sympathize with his fear of falling away from God. You're still horrified by how that fear has curdled within him, turning him into something far worse than an imperfect man. Frollo's fear of his own baser nature makes him cruel and intolerant of imperfections in the people around him. That's frightening because it's so common in our world.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame might be the most nakedly religious of all Disney films as well. The cathedral is such an outsized influence not only in the city at the time, but also in the lives of all its characters; you see how their belief in God is reflected in their actions and desires. Esmerelda's song, "God Help The Outcasts," is a gut-check against the self-involved and materialistic in the Church. In a lot of ways, the movie is not only concerned with the influence of religion in the inner world of its characters, but also how that translates into social action. Hunchback tackled themes of social justice decades before Zootopia came on the scene.
Musically, this might be some of the strongest work for long-time Disney composer Alan Mencken and his writing partner Stephen Schwartz. "The Bells of Notre Dame" is a haunting, tight prologue that serves as a mini-story setting up the board for the film; "Out There" is an amazing "I want" song that establishes Quasimodo as a wonderful hero while also introducing us to Frollo's awful emotional abuse and its effect on his charge; "Hellfire" is nothing short of an epic villain's war with the forces raging within himself. Each song heightens the emotional narrative superbly, planting its character's motivations so that we know exactly why they do the things they do.
The animation is similarly ambitious. Notre Dame is as much a character as anyone else, and watching the characters interact with it reveals their inner thoughts while also allowing us to see how it shapes their external world. Seeing Quasimodo scamper and swing across the rooftops is thrilling; when he does his thing, he's every bit as graceful as Tarzan swinging on the vine. The character design is pitch-perfect as well. Quasimodo is at once grotesque and endearing; Esmerelda is truly bewitching; Frollo is severe and terrible. Even the sidekicks and comic relief are a wonderful mixture of adorable and setting-appropriate. Everything works.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame might just be the most underrated film of the Disney Renaissance. It is an amazing film, even though it doesn't stick just so to its source material. Disney works with themes that it hasn't really delved into before or since, and threads the needle with a sensitive, passionate morality tale that challenges its audience as well as it inspires.
After catching so much heat for being too dark with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney swung the pendulum the other way for 1997's Hercules. This is another risk, especially for the family-friendly studio -- basing a crowd-pleasing comedy on ancient Greek myth? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the source material might have trouble explaining the real legend to their children. They ended up going off-script a bit more than usual here, creating what's essentially a mythological superhero-origin story.
Like Quasimodo, Hercules is an outcast in his society -- but for an entirely different reason. He doesn't know it, but he is a demi-god born to Zeus and Hera; his divinity was (mostly) removed by Hades in order to make sure that the hostile takeover of Olympus went according to plan. However, because he wasn't given every drop of the poison meant to make him mortal, he retained his godly strength. He just doesn't have the wisdom or finesse to wield it properly.
When Hercules learns that he is in fact the son of Zeus, he decides to become a hero in order to prove himself worthy of the gods and admission into Olympus. Of course, being heroic is a lot more than fighting monsters and saving innocents, and the movie pushes him towards learning that lesson.
Compared to the wonderful visuals of The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the stylized animation of Hercules is a big departure that doesn't come off all that well. Disney nails the style that it wanted, but there's something missing in the backgrounds and the setting; it doesn't quite come across as iconic or interesting. The Underworld is the most interesting place, visually, and we don't spend so much time there. Most of the time, it feels like we're in the world of the centaurs, fauns and dryads from Fantasia by way of modern recreation of Greek art.
The story is fairly straight-forward; Hercules has to learn how to use his strengths first, then overcome his weaknesses before he can truly claim the title of hero. It's certainly enjoyable, lightened by the gospel-infused Chorus, the cynical and wise Philoctetes and the big goofy Pegasus. Meg serves as the femme fatale here fairly well, but it's a foregone conclusion how her arc will play out.
I think that's the ultimate disappointment with Hercules as a film, really -- most of Disney's films are predictable when you get right down to it, but there's almost always an emotional hook that invests you in the character journey anyway. For just a little while, you allow yourself to forget that good will triumph over evil every time, and you really want the protagonist to succeed while not being sure he will. Or, at least, that he will without paying a fairly high price.
And that's what Hercules is missing. He literally has the King of the Gods on his side; even when the Titans are unleashed in the third act, they don't seem like a legitimate threat. And even though Hercules is a fine and studly hero, there isn't that vulnerability that makes him relatable. You don't root for him because he's an exceptional specimen who just won't fail. Here, he's a Greecian Superman, and it's always hard to write really great stories about the Man of Steel.
Maybe Hercules is simply a victim of proximity. It tells the story of a social outcast who desperately wants to find a place he belongs, but must dig deep within himself to overcome the forces keeping him apart and earn not only acceptance from others, but acceptance of himself. While the battle between Hades and Zeus is fun (and Hades does make for a pretty neat villain), it pales in comparison to the battle between Quasimodo, Frollo and God. Hercules simply hits too many of the notes that Hunchback does, and Hunchback did it better.
Still, this is a pretty good movie -- there's certainly nothing wrong with it. But it doesn't have the same ambition or fire that characterizes the other movies in the Disney Renaissance. It aims to be an enjoyable movie, and while it succeeds that's all it really is.
This movie is gorgeously photographed, plain and simple. The staging of the shots, the environments that the characters move through, the way the action plays out on screen -- it all comes together to produce a visually distinctive movie that calls to mind epic historical war dramas as well as intimate character meditations.
Mulan is the daughter of a revered Chinese war hero; as the only child, she carries the burden of preserving the honor of her family by being the perfect maiden, then wife. Of course she chafes at this; she simply doesn't fit the rigidly-defined role that her society has made for her. When the Huns clamber over the Great Wall and lay waste to villages, the Emperor calls for one man from every family to fight for their homeland. Making sure her wounded father doesn't have to go, Mulan steals his sword and armor to fight in his stead. She's accompanied by Mushu, a tiny dragon fallen from grace as a protector of the family; and Cri-Kee, a "lucky cricket" who serves as Mushu's sidekick.
Mulan's problems are very relatable, especially to those of us who don't fit into the rigid gender roles set out for us by our cultures. She is a woman who doesn't want to be demure and quiet; she's smart, she has opinions and she wants to be active in a place that equates femininity with passivity. What's interesting is how Disney doesn't pass judgement on this cultural expectation; it merely forms the backdrop for her character struggle. Again, I'm impressed by Disney's careful handling of other cultures and translating specific influences or attitudes into something universal.
The story isn't perfect, of course. This was just a couple of years after The Birdcage, and alternate sexualities and gender expressions were still one of those things that were played broad. While masquerading as a man, Mulan indulges in the easiest stereotypes about men vs. women when it really doesn't need to. Once the film establishes its characters, the best humor actually comes from their specific viewpoints. And the movie is filled with rich and interesting secondary characters that you really come to love over time.
But the animation is the real star of the show here. Disney creates a mythic China filtered through the lens of a spaghetti Western, knowing exactly when to pull back to show off the scale of a battlefield or the bright, vivid perfection of a homestead and when to tighten focus on a character's facial expressions. One of my absolute favorite transitions is the one out of the raucous "A Girl Worth Fighting For". It's a wonderful swerve that makes what comes afterward that much more haunting.
The third act is a wonderful set-piece that's both intimate, chaotic and simply great storytelling. The arcs of Mulan, Mushu and Captain Li Shang come to a wonderful conclusion here, and there's just enough room for the denouement to punctuate the way everyone's changed by their experience.
Mulan is a beautiful, compassionate, well-framed film that's only occasionally marred by the broad comedic sensibilities of the 90s. I think it's another one of those overlooked gems that people would really dig if they went back for another look.