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A Quasi Original

Those folks at Disney have taken a tale as old as time and turned it into an animated musical featuring a misshapen hero and a pretty heroine. Meet Beauty and the 'Back.

June 16, 1996|John Clark | John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Director Kirk Wise is talking about the line readings Kevin Kline was giving his character in Disney's new animated feature "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

"The toughest part about working with Kevin was trying to keep from laughing," Wise says. "He would make us laugh so hard with this steady stream of ad-libs."

"Or just variations on a line," says Wise's co-director, Gary Trousdale. "The kind of 'What's that in the road ahead?' or 'What's that in the road, a head?' "

Of course, Wise continues, very little of this made it into the movie. " 'Beauty' "--oops, Freudian slip--" 'Hunchback' isn't that kind of story," he says.

Wise can be forgiven for slipping. The "Beauty" that he is referring to is Disney's Oscar-nominated "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), which he and Trousdale also co-directed. Like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," it was an animated musical that took place in France and featured a misshapen hero and a beautiful heroine. In both films, beauty is only skin-deep.

" 'Beauty' is the rural equivalent of 'Hunchback,' " says producer Don Hahn, who worked with the directors on both films. "This is very much the urban Parisian story. We always joked that we should just do 'Cyrano' and get it over with. To complete the misshapen heroes of France stories."

"What we ended up doing was concentrating on the story," Trousdale says. "Not really worrying about the other one, because we knew that if parallels came up that were too close, people would tell us." (Apparently they did, to the extent that Wise was prompted to remark, "Sorry, folks, it's in the material.")

"There were some conscious things we decided to do in terms of the look and style of this movie to make it distinctly different than 'Beauty,' " Wise says. "They were mostly inspired by Victor Hugo. We tried to make this particular vision of Paris a little grittier, a little grimmer."

Certainly that much is in keeping with the novel. Published in 1831 and set in 1482, it was originally called "Notre-Dame du Paris," reflecting Hugo's interest in the cathedral's central place in medieval French society and his enthusiasm for Gothic architecture. In the course of the story, the monarchy is ridiculed, the church is seen as a force of both repression and vitality, and the common man is championed.

Eric Gans, a professor of French at UCLA, says Hugo was very much a man of the people. "Hugo was a legendary figure in France," he says. "When he died, he had the largest national funeral ever. He was known as a poet and a playwright, and his political stance was important. But his novels are easier to translate."

The greatest of these, of course, is "Les Miserables." Even for the French, however, Hugo was easier to read then than he is now. "He was a 19th century hero," Gans says. "Today it's much more agreeable to read Baudelaire or Flaubert."

Certainly Hugo had a 19th century sense of melodrama. Contrary to popular belief, the hunchback, Quasimodo (which is Latin for "half-formed"), is not the main character but a part of an ensemble cast. He serves as a bell ringer for Notre Dame and is devoted to the archdeacon of the church, Frollo, who raised him after he was abandoned. Much against his will (and his vows), Frollo falls in love with a Gypsy, Esmeralda. His passion for her is so extreme that he stabs the man she loves, Phoebus, nearly killing him. Esmeralda is convicted of the crime and eventually executed. Quasimodo, who is also in love with Esmeralda and understands Frollo's complicity in her fate, turns on his master and pushes him off the bell tower. The hunchback disappears, later to be found in Esmeralda's crypt, his bones embracing hers.

This is not exactly a classic Disney scenario. In fact, according to Tab Murphy, who wrote the original screenplay, Disney executives weren't entirely convinced it could make an animated movie. It was decided early on that Quasimodo would be the center of the story, as he was in past live-action film adaptations, notably the Charles Laughton version (1939). What the Disney people did was highlight what was latent in his situation and develop his character around that.

"We started to toss around the idea of Quasimodo the forlorn character trapped in the bell tower, and suddenly the bell tower becomes a character," Murphy says. "We thought that if you were trapped alone in a bell tower you would have to have an imagination and kind of live in a fantasy to make such a gloomy environment have some charm. And ultimately the character we created for Quasi was a benevolent, sweet-natured, charming person."

Charm was not one of Quasimodo's attributes in the book. He was a brute. He felt little need to communicate with the outside world. When occasions did arise, he was hampered by the fact that the ringing of the bells had rendered him deaf--a real problem when the character is expected to sing a score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, who wrote eight songs for the movie.

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