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The 'Hunchback' of Disney Rings Bells About Deceptive Looks

In "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," singing animated characters from 15th century Paris tell a Disney-fied love story about a misshapen bell ringer, a handsome officer and a self-righteous judge who all fall for a beautiful Gypsy dancer. (Rated G)

June 27, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Don't judge people by how they look."

That's what the Disney version of "Hunchback" is all about, according to many kids who saw it at the Irvine Spectrum recently. Or, as 13-year-old Yen Tran of Westminster put it: "Don't judge a book by its cover."

Undoubtedly most of them were thinking of Quasi, the nickname given to Quasimodo, the deformed 20-year-old son of a Gypsy woman. After being shut away in a bell tower and told he is worthless, he emerges to win the dubious title of the ugliest face in Paris. Eventually he proves he has a heart of gold, the courage of his convictions and the strength to save the day.

But the kids also may have been thinking of Esmerelda, the dark and beautiful dancer whom authorities consider dishonest and sinful because she is a Gypsy. She turns out to personify integrity and wins justice for her people.

There are many more sophisticated messages in this pop literary film, which kids may or may not pick up on, such as:

* Men like strong women. Every male character lusts for Esmerelda, a turquoise-eyed bohemian in a lilac skirt who fights like a man and is way beyond falling for lines such as "My name is Phoebus. It means Sun God."

* Religion isn't always a good thing. Judge Frollo has become so twisted by religious doctrine that he commits evil in the name of morality and must destroy what he cannot have.

* Life is not a spectator sport. As the gargoyles tell Quasi: "If watching is all you do, you're going to watch your life go by without you."

Some parents may be understandably concerned about Frollo's sick passion. In one long and nightmarish scene, he sings into a fireplace, explaining why he must kill Esmerelda because she is to blame for his lust. Her vision appears in the flames, which turn into a jury of empty red hoods. When it was over, a small voice in the audience asked: "What happened?"

"I don't think anyone under the age of 12 got it," said one mother from Mission Viejo. "I did," said her son, Adrian Butts, 10, swinging upside down from a handrail outside the theater.

In general, kids seemed less impressed than did adults with the spectacular animation and snappy show tunes. Instead, they mostly remembered elements of the familiar Disney formula: silly sidekicks and cartoon slapstick, such as teeth that turn into bullets.

Cesar Omar, 4, of Santa Ana fell asleep during the show, as did his father.

While 11-year-old Linda Nguyen thought this was her favorite Disney movie, Adrian said he preferred "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."

But most of the kids, even 4- and 5-year-olds, sat through the film transfixed by the bright colors, dramatic action and archetypal characters.

Taylor Cappel, 4, of Dove Canyon said she already has an Esmerelda costume. But the boys weren't so sure they wanted to dress up like Quasimodo. Thinking ahead to Halloween, Tyler Deshon, 5, of Mission Viejo, said he's still deciding between Batman and Robin.

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