Friday, February 16, 2007

Disney Battle! "Beauty and the Beast" versus "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

Today, jonesing for my animation fix after watching Beauty and the Beast, I went out and rented Disney's 1996 movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yup, it turns out that the Mouse House didn't make only one movie about a lonely disfigured individual with inanimate objects for friends who has to contend with inately stupid and superficial French hicks. It seems only fair that I make the two battle it out, commentary-wise, to see who comes out a winner.

The Story
B&TB: Spunky, literate gal Belle agrees to imprisonment in the Beast's castle in order to free her father, and in the process helps the Beast to become a nicer person while falling in love with him at the same time, which conveniently breaks the spell and transforms him into a gorgeous Prince.

HOND: Eeeevil Minister of Justice Frollo is guilted into adopting a deformed gypsy child, who grows up into a deformed bell ringer who falls for spunky, limber (!) gypsy Esmerelda. Eventually growing a spine (albeit a crooked one), Quasimodo saves Esmerelda from burning at the stake, only to watch her fall for handsome soldier Phoebus.

Similarities: Both stories center around a fugly main character, are situated in France, and place a heavy emphasis on the theme that people shouldn't be judged by appearances. Both stories deal with pretty heroines who are held against their will in flat-out gorgeous buildings, only to be freed by their new misshapen friends.

Differences: B&TB, based on less difficult source material, sticks with the myth and its main message. HOND on the other hand, deals with much more difficult and controversial themes - such as racial and religious persecution.

Advantage: Beauty and the Beast. It's a simple story, with profound themes and a necessary message, and it gets the job done. Hunchback may dig deeper, but it does so less well and ends up muddling the several meanings it tries to convey. Sure, both movies say that people shouldn't be judged only on appearances - but at least B&TB demonstrates both sides of that point by making the villain a tasty hunk of beefcake with a sleazy interior. In HOND, Quasimodo's no looker, but neither is Frollo - and in the end, all the good-looking characters (namely, Esmerelda and Phoebus) end up being purehearted anyway.

The Fugly Hero
B&TB: Beast (real name never revealed). Was turned into a furry, horned beast at age eleven for acting like an obnoxious, spoiled asswipe in front of the worst person imaginable: a enchantress with an inchy wand-finger. Confined to his magnificent castle with his (approximately) thousands of servants, who have all been turned into various dancing/singing household items, he has to fall in love with (and have that love returned by) someone who isn't a prancing bedpan by his twenty-first birthday if he wants to be human again.

HOND: Quasimodo. The deformed (and inexplicably fair-skinned) child of swarthy gypsy parents was adopted by Frollo after the Minister of Justice inadvertantly killed Quasimodo's mother. Raised in a belltower and weaned on Frollo's hypocritical teachings (his alphabet: A - Abomination, B - Blasphemy, C - Contrition, D - Damnation, E - Eternal Damnation!), he's in charge of ringing the bells of Notre Dame and being a little noticed as possible.

Similarities: Both characters can incite angry, jeering mobs by simply appearing in public. Both are alone but for their magically-animate friends who would normally be inanimate (the Beast has his silverware servants, Quasimodo a trio of gargoyles), and both are painfully aware of their monstrous appearance. Both have their own private space in their Gorgeous Buildings in which they express their repressed feelings (Quasimodo has a loft in which he crafts dolls and windchimes and other bric-a-brac, the Beast retreats to his West Wing to smash furniture and destroy paintings and stare into magic mirrors). Both are quite strong and when provoked can use said strength to do incredibly bad-ass things. Both end up being accepted by society at the ends of their films.

Differences: While both are courageous, Quasimodo is innately gentle and uses force only in self-defence, while the Beast is hot-tempered and prone to violence. The Beast, at least until the end of the movie, remains unknown to the oblivious French villagers near his forest - but the HOND indicates that Quasimodo is a well-known, but rarely-seen figure (when he leaves Notre Dame for the first time to participate in the Festival of Fools, he is quickly recognized as "the bellringer."). The crucial difference between them, of course, is that the Beast's hideousness was a punishment for his cruel behaviour, and by renouncing his heartless ways he returns to his handsome form. Sadly, Quasimodo was born the way he is, and remains that way at the end of the film.

Advantage: Beast. Let's face it, he makes the most psychological progress in his movie (from a spoiled little boy into a brave, compassionate man), he eventually returns to his adorable self, and oh hey, he gets the girl. Quasimodo was pleasant at the beginning and is pleasant at the end (although with a little more self-confidence) and the girl he adores still goes for the hot blonde. He's a nice enough kid, but Quasimodo ultimately ends up short-changed.

The Plucky Heroine
B&TB: Belle, the well-read and self-absorbed daughter of an eccentric inventor. Animal sidekick: the intelligent but cowardly horse Phillipe.
HOND: Esmerelda, the feisty dancing gypsy girl. Animal sidekick: Jolly, a goat (who wears an earring!).

Similarities: Both are strong-willed, looked down upon by the French Hicks, and are compassionate towards the downtrodden. Also, both end up briefly imprisoned in their films' Gorgeous Buildings.

Differences: Belle is buttoned-down, while swarthy Esmerelda, with her revealing clothing and pole-dancing (!) antics, is blatantly sexual and more physically fit. As well, Esmerelda is firey, whereas Belle is gentler and intellectual.

Advantage: Belle. Esmerelda's exoticised appearance (dark skin, bright green eyes, rakish single earring and gypsy garb) makes Belle look like a plain-jane in comparison, but she makes some ridiculously stupid decisions wheras Belle is smart as a tack. And let us not forget, that Belle actually falls for the Fugly Hero, while he is fugly, while Esmerelda sees Quasimodo only as a friend and prefers handsome, witty Phoebus as marriage material.

The Villain
B&TB: Gaston, the devilishly good-looking but dastardly huntsman paragon of French Hicksville.
HOND: Frollo, the hypocritically pious Minister of Justice.

Similarities: Both harbour naughty thoughts for the Plucky Heroine, and are selfish, self-righteous, and vain. They share a similar demise as well - upon the ramparts of the Gorgeous Buildings of their respective films, they tumble to their deaths when they attempt to backstab the hero/heroine.

Differences: Um, well, Gaston is more blatant, and (dare I say?) honest about his intentions - he wants Belle, he tells her so. He doesn't like the Beast, so he stirs up a mob (a singing mob!) to destroy him. That could just be because he's as dumb as a post, though. Frollo's more cunning, but he's also a seriously disgusting perv, as in, a hair-sniffing, undergarment-rubbing horny old man. And ugly, too - his long-boned, hook-nosed appearance seems a departure from the usual exaggerated-feature design of Disney Villains, and seems more in keeping with a Dreamworks' animated baddie - like the Phaoroh in Prince of Egypt.

Advantage: Frollo. This dude's playing for the major leagues of evil - he's religiously intolerant, bigotted to the point of attempting genocide, emotionally abusive, and as pervy as all get out. Frollo's simmering badness makes Gaston look almost redeemable - I mean, hey, the all that guy wants is a hunting lodge, a little wife, and six or seven strapping young sons. He's not trying to eradicate an entire race of gypsies! Gaston throws Belle's favourite book in a mud puddle - Frollo sets a house on fire while the family is still inside. Do the math.

The Music
By the way, when I say "main song," I'm referring to the song in a Disney film whose tune is integrated into the general instrumental score of the movie. For instance, the "main song" for The Little Mermaid wouldn't be "Under the Sea" but "Part of Your World," because the notes in the chorus of "up where they walk/ up where they run" frequently reappear in the score.

B&TB: The main song for this was, naturally, "Beauty and the Beast" - which was wonderfully performed (apparently in just one take) by Angela Lansbury, the voice of Mrs Potts - a song sung by an outsider who observes how two people who appear to be so different gradually come to love each other. Other songs include the iconic "Be Our Guest," "Something There," and "Belle."

HOND: The main song was "Out There" - a ballad which was performed by the voice of Quasimodo, Tom Hulce (from Amadeus) - about Quasimodo's desire to leave Notre Dame and explore Paris and live like the regular people he's spied on all his life. Other songs include "A Guy Like You," "Topsy Turvy," and my personal favourite - "Hellfire."

Similarities: Both are composed by Alan Menken, and the scores are both suitably darkly-themed. They both have a carnivalesque tune set to a grand spectacle ("Be Our Guest" and "Topsy Turvy") both have a humorous number by the magically-animated-inanimate objects ("Something There" and the added "Human Again" for B&TB, and "A Guy Like You" for HOND). The villains both get a number as well ("Gaston" and "Hellfire").

Differences: Alan Menken puts a decided Gothic tone to his score for HOND, full of Latin choruses which suits the Church theme. The musical subject matter is also more serious and much more religious in HOND - lots of prayer and appeals to God and references to piety and sin, etc. Also, while B&TB reprises its main song for a final chorus at the end of the film, HOND reprises the minor, opening song - "The Bells of Notre Dame".

Advantage: B&TB all the way. I spend my childhood watching and re-watching these movies over and over again, day after day, sometimes even twice in the same day. I'm pretty sure HOND was the last movie I did that with. I can easily remember (and hum!) the tunes from B&TB, but apart from "Out There" and "Hellfire," I can barely recall the music from HOND, and I watched that only yesterday. I also just plain prefer the music of B&TB, with its moody but delicate theme, to the heavier and less nimble music of HOND, and Lansbury's gentle but sprightly "Beauty and the Beast" plays out better than "Out There" with Hulce's distracting vibrato.

I can also sing the music to B&TB in public, something I cannot do with the incredibly creepy ode-to-old-man-lust "Hellfire," in which Frollo proceeds to beg the Virgin Mary to either a) kill Esmerelda to end his unholy hard-on, or b) give him Esmerelda so that he can get it on hypocritical-geezer-style. During said number, the old man rubs himself with Esmerelda's scarf and faces down a chorus of shadowy judges holding bishop's crooks who condemn him for being horny. I wouldn't want to have to explain that number to my kids if they ever watched this movie.

Now, I'm not saying HOND was a bad movie - it was surprisingly good compared to what I ws expecting. Like all Disney films, it had cute characters and fantastic visuals - but I don't think the darker tone it was trying to go for quite succeeded.

2 comments:

  1. I agree with you, although it wasn't a bad movie, The Hunchback wasn't nearly as good as Beauty & the Beast...There were so many more loveable characters in the latter...

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  2. Indeed - and while Quasimodo (apparently "Quasi" for short - that whining you hear is the sound of Victor Hugo spinning in his grave) is very adorable, none of the other characters left a particular mark, except maybe for Phoebus - who could have been a real dick, but was redeemed by Kevin Kline's amused line readings.

    Still, the visuals were spectacular, and comparing it to some more recent non-Disney movies, it still holds up. Even a supposedly sub-par Disney movie is a million times better than drek like "Quest for Camelot", which I had to see the other day. Really weak animation (particularly with human movements and facial expressions which were unforgivably stilted), annoying songs with insipid lyrics (sung by people whose singing voices did NOT match the speaking voices of the characters - Cary Elwes does NOT sound like a Backstreet Boy), and frankly stupid characters. Which is a surprise, as this film was packed to the gills with famous stars (Pierce Brosnan, Eric Idle, Gary "commissioner Gordon" Oldman, etc.) while HOND had, er, well Kevin Kline, the woman married to Ashton Kutcher, and the dude in Amadeus.

    I really hope Disney will go back to doing hand-drawn animation - I heard somewhere that Pixar's actually asked their partner Disney to go back to 2D, because "Chicken Little" and the incomprehensible "Family Robinson" are cannibalizing their market. C'mon Disney! There's a least a hundred other fairy tales you haven't done yet!

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