Ruins of a cathedral

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Robin Buss on Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and other releases. The blockbusters have arrived: disaster (Twister), sci-fi (Independence Day), action spin-off (Mission: Impossible); and, for the children, animation.

James and the Giant Peach, now on release, is the first of two Roald Dahl adaptations due out this year; Roald Dahl's Matilda, directed by Danny De Vito, is to follow at Christmas. Dahl himself was wary of releasing the film rights to his work, but he might have liked James and the Giant Peach. The mixture of live action and animation works very well, the special effects are superb and the film catches Dahl's tone: slightly cold, even cruel, but full of wonder at the mystery and the unpredictability of life. There is probably a lot more Dahl to come.

Disney's latest full-length animated feature (as if you didn't know) is The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are going to be heavily marketed over the next few months, and there will no doubt be visitors enjoying their Notre-Dame souvenirs in Disneyland Paris, who have forgotten that the Cathedral itself is only a few miles away.

It is easy to say that the film ought to be considered in its own right, distinct from both history and Hugo - and to praise the excellence of the animation, the uniformity of style, the skill of the narrative, the hummability of the songs and the willingness of the Disney film-makers to explore new ground, while cleverly exploiting the formulae which have been the basis of their past success. Everything we have come to expect from a Disney feature is here; indeed, with its grotesque central character, Gothic pile, strong heroine and humanistic message, this is much like a reprise of Beauty and the Beast. But there is a darker note here, in the character of Claude Frollo: a hint that he is a man damned by his cruelty and sexual desires, which will not mean much to young children - and, thankfully, is unlikely to frighten them, either - though it may surprise their parents, in a cartoon.

All of which is fair enough, except that the film is not a fable, like Beauty, but a literary adaptation. Hugo's book is not a masterpiece; it may even be something more interesting: a Romantic novel, very much of its time, which uses fiction as a means to evoke a past moment of historical change. It is not set in some vague "Middle Ages" of priests and beggars, knights and gargoyles, but precisely in 1482, in a period when, Hugo argues, the medium of the printed book was starting to take over as the dominant form of knowledge.

"This Will Kill That" is the title of a key chapter in the novel, that being the "encyclopedic Cathedral where everything, from the smallest detail of a window or sculpture to the design of the whole, adds up to a summa of human understanding".

Quasimodo is the central figure in this story because he has become an integral part of the Cathedral, which "speaks" to him as to no one else. The film's response to this is a trio of comic gargoyles, "Victor", "Hugo" and "Laverne" (why "Laverne", or am I missing something?), who come to life for Quasimodo, urging him to go out and have fun instead of staying cooped up in his gloomy old tower. Here and elsewhere, much as one would like to treat the film as an artefact in its own right, it refuses to let you, drawing attention back to the historic building and the literary source of the story. And, in every case, the comparison suggests an impoverishment, a misinterpretation or a vulgarisation. If the film leaves us reflecting at all on history, it is to evoke the fear that we may be living through another epoch of cultural change, and that, once more, "this will kill that".

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