A Quasi Original

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.

Disney gave Quasimodo back his hearing (and the voice of Tom Hulce). What they couldn’t give him was good looks. This not only would have violated the spirit of the book, it would have also violated the spirit of the movie, which is about how he comes to terms with how he looks. Nevertheless, his affliction was a source of some concern at the studio. Disney has been burned in the past by issues of political correctness.

“There were questions asked by unnamed people about whether we should call it ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ because ‘hunchback’ is a hurtful word,” Trousdale says. “You’re going to call it ‘The Differently Abled Bell Ringer’?”

“I think most people eventually understood that you call more attention to it by changing it than you would by not changing it,” Wise adds.

More to the point, the animators were bedeviled by the issue of how ugly to make Quasimodo. He had to be ugly enough for the characters on-screen to be appalled and yet be endearing enough for the audience to sympathize with. In many respects, he was even tougher to create than the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” because he doesn’t have what Trousdale calls “the teddy bear factor.”

“We had a zillion different designs for Quasi,” Wise says. “There were some designs where he looked like a teenage guy with bad posture. There were other designs where he looked like one of the Seven Dwarfs.”

Trousdale says, “We wanted to take advantage of the medium, too--not just have it be something you could do in live action with prosthetics and makeup. His legs are stunted. His arms are too long and slightly different lengths. His head is real misshapen.”

“He doesn’t have big floppy shoes and a great big honkable nose,” Wise says. “He’s definitely more of an extreme design than people might expect from Disney.”

In fact, at a test screening the audience’s reaction was such that they thought they might have gone too far.

“We looked at each other and went, ‘Oh-oh,’ ” Wise says.

“But within five minutes people were with him,” Trousdale says.

“It proves out the whole theme of the movie,” Wise adds. “The initial shock at his appearance and then the discovery that inside that misshapen and twisted body is a really noble soul.”

Quasimodo’s opposite number, of course, is Frollo (the voice of Tony Jay). He’s conventional-looking on the outside and twisted on the inside. Rather than being Quasimodo’s benefactor, as he is in the book, he’s the hunchback’s jailer, which ties in with Quasimodo’s need to connect with the outside world. Unlike most Disney villains, however, Frollo isn’t bad simply because he’s drawn that way. Somehow the animators managed to keep intact Frollo’s “psychosis,” as Murphy puts it. In other words, his desire for Esmeralda is sexual, which is in direct conflict with his beliefs. His solution to this conflict is to destroy her. This “adult” theme greatly appealed to Murphy, and Disney, at least initially, encouraged him to explore it.

“They didn’t shy away from that,” he says. “They didn’t come to me and say, ‘Here’s this great piece of literature. Disney-fy it and let’s make a movie for kiddies.’ ”

All the same, he says, it’s easy to et things by the brass when storyboards are being done. When Frollo became more of a reality, executives understandably became concerned about the sexual subtext and tried to push him in more conventional directions.

“We were pressured a lot early on that Frollo had to be motivated by a lust for riches,” Wise says.

“Or power,” Trousdale says.

“Or higher political office.”

“He wanted a corner office and a company car.”

“We kept having to explain,” Wise says, “ ‘No, Frollo has all those things. What’s driving him is this base desire for this girl that he cannot deal with, that he cannot accept within himself.’ ”

Having won this battle, the animators had to be careful how they dramatized it.

“It’s difficult in this medium because you have to do it in a tasteful way,” Wise says. “You have to do it in a way that adults will understand the subtext and it won’t be so over the kids’ heads that they won’t be baffled by the character.”

“In one sense, kids don’t get the intricacies of it,” Trousdale says. “But on a lower level they understand that Bluto wants to kiss Olive Oyl and that’s bad.”

Murphy says that because Frollo was such a vivid and complex villain, the other characters had to be as “well-drawn or three-dimensional. Otherwise it’ll be ‘Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame.’ ” (Which, incidentally, raises the issue of Frollo’s profession. In the book he was a priest; in this movie, as in the Laughton version, he’s a member of the judiciary. “The primary reason was in terms of a villain being so closely linked to the church,” Murphy says. “I don’t know that it made us uncomfortable so much as by separating him it gave us a lot more room to play with.”)

One of the characters who had to measure up to Frollo was the object of his desires, Esmeralda, voiced by Demi Moore. Interestingly, this Esmeralda is not only a lot more mature than Disney heroines of the past, she’s also much more so than Hugo’s conception of her. In the book, she’s a naif, or, as Hahn puts it, “as dumb as a post.”

“She’s a departure from the traditional Disney heroine because she’s a little harder around the edges,” Wise says. “She’s a little more street-smart, a little more cynical, a little more dangerous. I think she’s the first Disney heroine to carry a concealed weapon. We’re proud of that fact.”

Hahn says, “Part of casting Moore is that she has this great texture to her voice that makes her feel like she’s been around a bit.”

Apparently Moore contributed more than just that voice.

“She was very articulate about what she thought the character should be,” Hahn says. “Even the dialogue. She’d read through five scenes and she’d be fine and then she got to a scene where Quasi is touring her through the bell tower. She stopped and said, ‘I don’t think she would say this.’ We sat down and tried some different things with her and finally arrived at something that seemed like it came out of the character. She was fun to work with.”

“We showed her early drawings of the character, and there were aspects that she liked and some others that she didn’t,” Wise says. “She felt the character looked a little too masculine. There was something about the eyes she wasn’t comfortable with. And we responded to that.” Wise hastens to add, however, that “we weren’t trying to make a miniaturized version of Demi Moore.”

But it might be argued that at least in terms of personality, they made Phoebus a miniaturized version of his voice, Kevin Kline--wry and witty, but not a buffoon. In this telling, Phoebus has been transformed from a career soldier cad serving the crown into a sort of everyman serving Frollo (at least until he’s told to track down Esmeralda). His interest in Esmeralda falls somewhere between Frollo’s, which is strictly carnal, and Quasimodo’s, which is platonic. In fact, in the early drafts, Quasimodo served as a Cyrano between Phoebus and Esmeralda (love songs between the two were written but discarded, because this is the hunchback’s story, not theirs). Although in some sense Phoebus may be a leading man, the animators didn’t want him to look like one.

“We wanted to get away from the traditional square-jawed, mannequin-faced Disney leading man,” Wise says. “He doesn’t look like he stepped out of the pages of GQ. He looks a little more like a guy who maybe had his nose broken once or twice.”

“A Harrison Ford look,” Trousdale says.

With these four principals sketched out, the filmmakers felt free to drop some characters, consolidate others and add a few of their own, notably the inevitable comic relief, this time a trio of gargoyles who are Quasimodo’s only friends. (These were suggested by the hunchback’s relationship with the bells in the book.) They’ve also introduced a narrator, Clopin, king of the Gypsies.

In the end, according to Disney, none of these changes really violate the spirit of Hugo’s novel, because the animators have found a perennial Disney theme lurking within the story itself.

“The exploration of the outcast, the person who has self-esteem problems,” says Peter Schneider, head of Disney animation. “If you look at all of the films over the last eight years, they all deal with that issue, whether it’s Ariel or the Beast or Simba. The goal is to find a place where you belong.” And they firmly believe that Quasimodo belongs here.