American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
When I first heard about the project, I wondered if “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” could possibly work as a Disney animated feature--if the fearsome features and fate of its sad hero Quasimodo would hold audiences at arm's length. When I saw the preview trailers for the film, with its songs about “Quasi,” I feared Disney had gone too far in an attempt to popularize and neutralize the material. I was wrong to doubt, and wrong to fear: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is the best Disney animated feature since “Beauty and the Beast”--a whirling, uplifting, thrilling story with a heart-touching message that emerges from the comedy and song.
The story involves the lonely life of the deformed Quasimodo (voice by Tom Hulce), born a “monster” and thrown down a well before being rescued and left to be raised by the priests of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. The vast gloomy gothic shadows of the cathedral become his playground, and his only friends are three stone gargoyles. But his life changes on the day of the Festival of Fools, when he ventures out of the cathedral, is elected “King of the Fools,” and then hears Clopin, king of the gypsies, gasp: “That's no mask!” Quasimodo is made a captive by the mob and tied down at the orders of the heartless Judge Frollo, but rescued by the gypsy girl Esmeralda (voice by Demi Moore). He rescues her in turn, giving her sanctuary inside the cathedral.
And then he finds himself in the center of a battle to save the gypsies of Paris from Frollo's troops, led by Phoebus (voice by Kevin Kline), captain of the guard. But Phoebus is not a bad man, and besides, he has fallen in love with the fiery Esmeralda. But... so has Quasimodo...
This is not such a simple story. There are depths and shadows to it, the ending cannot be simple, and although the heroes may live ever after, it may not be happily. This is the first Disney animated film I can recall with two heroes who both love the girl, which makes heartbreak inevitable.