Monthly Archives: July 2011

July 26, 2011

Disney Canon #34: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)


ADAM That was, like, three-hundred percent. I don’t know if it was good, but it was compelling. I mean, wow.

BETH I agree. I thought it was beautiful. I thought that the illustrations were really lovingly done.

ADAM The computer stuff looked really gorgeous, even though it was totally gratuitous.

BROOM Which computer stuff are you talking about?

BETH Like, the fog and lighting.

ADAM The swooping-over-the-crowd scenes.

BETH Lots of swooping through the bells.

BROOM I know that they were proud of their system for creating crowds with the computer, which was new technology at the time, and I remember being really focussed on the little people in the background when I saw it in the theater. But this time I just took it for granted. I think The Lord of the Rings and things like that have really numbed me to the effect. But I do agree that the CGI was used tastefully.

ADAM To be clear, this was terribly ill-conceived, and I can’t believe this got green-lighted. But it was just so passionate.

BROOM It couldn’t be more misbegotten.

ADAM Just a wrong property to make into a lush animated musical.

BROOM It boggles the mind.

ADAM But it has sort of a really period wrongness. The way that you picture, like — what was the Elizabeth Taylor movie set in ancient Persia?

BROOM Cleopatra?

ADAM Not Cleopatra — she did something, like, even moreso.

BROOM I didn’t even know about that. [ed. I still don’t know.]

ADAM I saw it said in one of her obituaries that “she brought down studios.” And that’s sort of the level of craziness of everything about this.

BETH I can’t imagine a child watching this.

ADAM Where he, like, masturbates into her scarf, and then casts it into hellfire? What’s wrong with that?

BROOM Did he not plunge to his death clutching, like, a giant demon phallus?

ADAM Yeah. I’m sorry — casts it into hellfire while surrounded by a chorus of faceless red-robed monks of death.

BETH A truly scary image.

BROOM I remember thinking that was the best sequence, in 1996, and it totally is.

BETH Oh, it is.

BROOM By a longshot. Because it’s deeply inappropriate for a Disney movie, and they go all-out.

ADAM That’s like what that Leni Riefenstahl scene in The Lion King was trying to be. But wasn’t, because it didn’t have the inappropriate sexual overlay.

BROOM So Beth, you saw Tosca recently. Was he not just like the guy from Tosca?

BETH Oh, he was kind of like the guy from Tosca, yeah. Although I don’t really remember it.

BROOM Now, I don’t know what the plot of the real Hunchback of Notre Dame is. Is there a lustful chief of police? Or whatever he was — what was he?

BETH He was some clergy…

BROOM Ah, but he wasn’t!

ADAM He was a civil official. I think.

BETH But he lived in… ?

ADAM He lived in the Palace of Justice.

BROOM Which was like an anti-church.

ADAM I think he’s like the chief prosecutor and also judge.

BROOM But his song is all about, you know, the fires of hell, and sin, and God, and religious imagery. And he can’t deal with his own sexual impulses because of his hypocritical faith. But he actually has no faith during the rest of the movie, so it was sort of a bait-and-switch.

ADAM No faith except in himself, in his own rectitude.

BROOM Except at the very beginning, when as the jester said, for a moment he feared something bigger than himself. When he sees the eyes of the statues staring at him. So… Quasimodo is the offspring of gypsies?

ADAM He’s a pure gypsy.

BROOM He didn’t have the skin tone.

ADAM He didn’t look like a gypsy, yeah. Because that would have made it… I don’t know, too obvious.

BROOM And what were his parents trying to do?

ADAM Come into the city.

BROOM They weren’t supposed to enter because he was trying to keep gypsies out.


ADAM I think the second most effective song is… well, first of all, I think the songs are the least effective thing about this, because they’re so discordant.

BROOM Except for the hellfire song.

ADAM Yes. But I think that God of the Outcasts is a pretty good song…

BETH Really?

ADAM … because the other parishioners are singing, like, “give me wealth.” That woman’s singing “give me love!” and reaching out for it. That sort of pricked my conscience a little bit.

BROOM All right, well, they got you!

BETH With all of the songs, I was just imagining them imagining how it would play on Broadway.

BROOM Or in the Broadway of our minds.

ADAM Well, that’s over. This is the last one that’s like that, I think. The next one’s Tarzan, right?

BROOM Hercules.

ADAM Oh, all right, but Hercules is not Broadway, it’s moving into pop-y. This is really the last one that feels like, you know, Neil Patrick Harris would be doing the whole thing.

BETH Yeah, it’s so much that, though. They really went all the way.

BROOM They were trying to do an epic melodrama. This is their, like, Sweeney Todd, you know? I mean, it was their Les Misérables, to be more on point.

ADAM I mean, it was good. I liked it!

BROOM I can’t summon the word “good.” I don’t think I can say that.

ADAM Yeah, it wasn’t “good,” it was… memorable.

BETH It was compelling. My barometer is how frequently I look at the clock to see how much time has passed, and I wasn’t doing it very much.

BROOM I felt its length weighing on me in the second half. Several times. It definitely had flair… but let’s just talk about some things that were bad about it, because I feel like it needs to be pointed out that it was bad. The presence of the gargoyles at all, and then especially the song that they do: embarrassing.

ADAM Isn’t it good that they get his hopes up, then to be cruelly dashed? I mean, that’s the thing: he really is terribly ugly, and the movie doesn’t really pull that punch.

BROOM You’re saying that… he can’t ever find love? I really don’t know what the point of the original story is.

ADAM No, me neither.

BETH It doesn’t matter!

ADAM We can leave that by the side of the road. This is a self-contained artifact. It’s stands with Demi Moore’s The Scarlet Letter.

BROOM It really does, actually. They’re of a piece and they’re from the same era. I was thinking of that when she was up there at the stake.

BETH Her eye color was bizarre.

BROOM She was very poorly animated compared to the rest of it, I thought, and that actually affected my experience. I couldn’t take her character seriously. I thought it was interesting that her sexy dance was done with weird shading effects on her body.

BETH I really didn’t notice that.

BROOM Her dress, when she was dancing and igniting the fires of lust in Frollo’s loins, was animated with a different technique; it looked like a continuous special effect. To signify its mysterious power over him, I guess.

ADAM We’ve already seen… what’s his name? Prebus?

BROOM Phoebus.

ADAM We’ve already seen his exact facial features somewhere else.

BROOM No, you’ve seen them in Tangled, but we haven’t yet.

ADAM Oh, I was going to say, the first third of this totally is Tangled, but they do a much better job there. You’re going to see this again twenty years later, and it’s going to be better.

BROOM I thought that the conception of some of the songs was wishful thinking. I was just working on a job where people were trying to work out the dramaturgical mechanisms of songs in a show to make it work, and I felt like we were just watching that kind of thing play out, here. It was the sort of stuff where I try to keep in mind someone like you, Adam, who thinks this stuff is embarrassing, and always to remind myself that this sort of thing doesn’t actually work. Like the opening number: we were all snickering at it because it was so contrived. Here’s the sound of bells! — now we swoop down into Paris! — now there’s a jester and he’s got puppets of all the characters and he’s saying “don’t you want to know how the story began, well I’ll tell you!” — and then there’s a flashback narrated in song!…

ADAM That’s exactly how Aladdin starts.

BROOM There it’s just a jokey frame. It’s like: “Who am I? Who knows! Who cares? Now the story starts!” Here it was actual important exposition, and he has some kind of jester attitude, who knows what it was…

BETH That confused me, so I was just picturing an eight-year-old having no idea what was going on.

BROOM But by the end of it, when Adam said, “did you follow that?” and you said “I think I did” — it was from the visuals, and I think an eight-year-old would understand that the mommy died and that this guy’s bad, and yet for some reason he’s keeping the kid alive, and the kid grows up to be “Quasi”!

ADAM “Hey, Quasi!” Yeah, those gargoyles.

BROOM Named “Victor,” “Hugo,” and “Laverne.” I mean, that’s funny! But only as an “obviously we won’t actually put that in the movie” kind of joke.

ADAM Played respectively by Niles Frasier…

BROOM No, it wasn’t. It was the guy from Murphy Brown, Charles Kimbrough.

ADAM Oh, of course! Blast from the nineties.

BROOM And George Costanza, of course. And the other woman I didn’t know.

ADAM Woman? Laverne was a woman? That whole time?


ADAM I thought that was just a lot of drag going on. I thought it was just a crotchety old dude, like a Hal Holbrook type.

BROOM It did seem like that, but it wasn’t. But their song was so, so embarrassing to me. You didn’t feel that way?

ADAM It was the same thing as always. It was Be Our Guest. I mean, whatever. All this is — it’s like playing “Memory,” you know? There’s only so many elements; they just reuse them in different ways.

BROOM But if they have the vision to put in a song about “hellfire!,” couldn’t they also have taken the leap and said, “hey, I don’t think this one needs sidekicks.”

BETH Well, I think it did — Quasimodo needed someone to talk to.

BROOM He needs to talk when he’s alone, yes. But he had those dolls! Those would have been more appropriate.

ADAM Can you imagine how psychologically disturbing this would have been if he’d had no sidekicks? It would have just been him going crazy up in the tower!

BETH Or if he’d been talking to dolls that didn’t talk back.

BROOM We would feel his loneliness with him! It would actually be very affecting. Remember in The Lord of the Rings when Gollum talks to himself in the puddle of water?

ADAM Or he could have been talking to Wilson.

BETH It would have been incredibly creepy, though!

BROOM This movie was creepy!

BETH It was, it was, but think how much more creepy it would have been…

BROOM If it had just been Wilson?

ADAM I thought it was really effective! And it had the atmospherics of, like — you said “Les Mis,” or “Phantom,” or “Robin Hood.” I wish there had been a little more pomp and mystery about the Cave of Wonders… the Court of… whatever.

BROOM Yeah. It basically turned out to be some assholes in a sewer. And we’re supposed to think of them as the good guys, but they were about to hang our heroes too. I mean, Frollo is more or less right: the world doesn’t accept him. I thought it was interesting, the philosophical balance they struck between “it’s a lie: if he goes out he will find acceptance” and “no, it’s not a lie: people really are cruel.” Because people are cruel! But not wholly cruel. It’s an interesting moral.

BETH Mm-hm.

BROOM But I just don’t go for that atmosphere you were talking about. It’s the same reason I don’t like Batman movies: you can’t tell me that it’s epic, just for the sake of its being epic.

ADAM It also feels very nineties, in terms of being a movie about cultural moralism, and outcasts. It wasn’t so much a movie about gays, although I guess you could claim that if you wanted; it felt more like a movie about illegal immigrants. It felt resonant to contemporary political problems.

BROOM It would be very easy to claim that it’s about coming out of the closet. Come on!

ADAM I know, but I don’t want to be a stereotype of myself.

BROOM You squeezed it out when it’s not there; here it’s actually easy.

ADAM It was about gays coupling with illegal immigrants to create a united front against the religious right. It does feel like a Lewinsky era movie, though.

BROOM The reason that the hellfire scene was the best was because it had mystery and atmosphere and didn’t fully explain itself; it just showed us imagery that was effective. The rest of it was very diagrammatic.

ADAM And that scene set up a very compelling reason why he’s being such a fanatic. The villain in Pocahontas is just a fanatic because he’s kind of a douchebag. There’s nothing really compelling about that. You really believe that this guy would burn down the whole city to find her. And every time you saw his face, with that glittering digust/lust….

BROOM It was an interestingly-designed character.

BETH I actually really liked his face. I thought it was well done.

BROOM They didn’t make him look like a cartoon of evil; they just made him look like some actor who might play that guy.

BETH Who did he look like? I felt like he actually looked like a guy, like a real actor.

BROOM Unlike Esmeralda, who just looked like big eyes.

BETH She looked a little bit like a darker Demi Moore. Her chin was sort of square in the same way.

BROOM A little, but I thought it was pretty lazy.

ADAM Quasimodo was really ugly, in a way that was hard to wave away.

BETH I feel like they tried to make him a little bit cute at the same time.

BROOM I thought they did pretty good job of solving that. He was sort of the E.T. type of ugly-cute. With the eyes spread out and a flattened head.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM Here’s my big point. I always have to have one, and this is it: Broadway-style storytelling is useful on Broadway because it’s up on a stage far away; they need to shout everything at you to get it to the back of the house, and you can’t see any detail. So it’s very demonstrative and telegraphs everything. But in animation, you can bring people into… a cave of wonders! So to have everything be shouted, essentially…

ADAM Ahhhh ahhhh ahhhh!…. [imitating grandiose choral voices]

BROOM I meant metaphorically shouted, but yes, that too, to have a giant chorus singing the intro and ending of every song… it’s a waste! It’s a misuse of the medium.

BETH Will they figure this out? Is that what you’re saying? This is the last one and they stop being this way?

BROOM They go in other directions, but I don’t think they figure out what I’m saying. I’m saying the old movies had their own movie-rhythm and movie-feel. But look: yes, a well-crafted one of these, given that they should never have done it in the first place.

ADAM And I think it was probably a big flop, right?

BROOM I mean… it’s such a mess!

[we read the New York Times review]

ADAM Sure, it is very derivative, but having seen thirty-four of these… even the ones in the so-called Golden Age seemed derivative, you know? So that doesn’t strike me as all that surprising. It’s just part of the loving pattern of the thing.

BROOM I think there’s a difference between “consistent” or “of a piece” and “derivative.”

ADAM This is a little more obviously or aggressively derivative than the others, and I guess that stood out to Janet Maslin.

BROOM When she said that each song these days seems to serve functions laid out by prior songs, that’s the essence of it, to me. It’s not that I want to see something that I’ve never seen before; it’s that it feels like this is happening because it’s the formula. I’ve been saying that for ten years’ worth of these movies, now.

ADAM I mean, they’re all the same story, about someone being kept behind walls and wanting to break out into the wide world.

BROOM That’s what they’re all about now, but they used to be about all kinds of things. You know… a fox and a hound… Robin Hood… a bunch of mice rescuing a little girl… mice rescuing a little boy…

ADAM … Donald Duck going to South America…

BROOM … Donald Duck going to South America again… Almost none of them was about someone wishing for the fresh air. What’s the first one that’s like that?

BETH Snow White.

BROOM No! She’s happy in living in her palace. She has a lovely life; she just wants someone to love her.

ADAM Cinderella is kind of like that.

BROOM Cinderella is the first one. Unless you count Pinocchio, but his desire is different. He just wants to grow up.

ADAM That’s similar. I don’t think it’s orders of magnitude different.

BETH I would count Pinocchio.

BROOM But it’s a morality play. When you go out into the world, you better watch out for the tempters.

ADAM This was sort of like that, too.

BROOM No it wasn’t.

ADAM The world is a dangerous place for him, and he learns to overcome it, just as Pinocchio does.

BROOM Is that really what happens in this movie?

ADAM Bambi is not that movie. And The Lion King is not exactly that. Well, I guess in The Lion King he does want to explore the elephant graveyard.

BROOM I don’t think that’s the theme there.

ADAM It is, a little bit. He does want adventure, and then it’s thrust upon him in Hamlet fashion.

BROOM But the arc of The Lion King is that he has this fate put on his shoulders and he has to decide to accept that responsibility.

ADAM It’s actually about coming back home.

BROOM It has the “leave me alone!” scene that recurred in this one. When Quasimodo is chained up and the gargoyles say “come on, get out there!” and he says “Leave me alone.” I thought, this is something we’ve seen frequently.

ADAM We saw that with the genie in Aladdin also.

BROOM I guess the Beast gets that way too. Belle never does. Women don’t go through that kind of thing. But all the male heroes, of late…

ADAM … have a sulky interlude.

BROOM I would call it the “leave me alone” scene. “JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!”


July 4, 2011

Independence Day Rag

About 10 years ago I wrote two rags. I listened to them last night and thought that it sounded like they were probably pretty easy to write and figured I could probably write more without too much effort. So that’s what I just did.

Those earlier two were sort of exuberantly goofy; this one I tried to steer in the same direction but I guess I wasn’t feeling it; it came out fairly conservative. Except for a couple of jokes with phrase length and the obvious overdose of dissonance, this really is just your standard-issue rag.

Hear for yourself.

Very unedited score. I’ll replace this with a revised and/or edited version if I ever revise and/or edit it.

Edit later that day: Man, this is a really annoying piece.