The Fathers May Soar, And the Children May Know Their Names

Toni Morrison‘s epigraph to Song of Solomon, a story about identity and flight in both the literal and metaphorical sense, might seem uplifting at first; but by the end of the novel it’s revealed for the tragedy it really is. Anyone who has read a Morrison novel knows how frustratingly meticulous she can be as a writer. It’s nearly impossible to decipher let alone analyze all the meaning she loads into her words. But that’s why she’s so awesome. Although Song of Solomon speaks specifically to black audiences–absentee fathers and their damaged children–the author also encapsulates a broader truth: It’s pretty helpful to know where you come from.

Which brings me to Road to Perdition, another story about fathers and flight (metaphorically, of course). This is one hideously underrated film.  Sam Mendes‘s follow-up to his critically acclaimed (and annoyingly overrated American Beauty) tells the Greek tragedy-esque story of a man  and his son who save each other  one pernicious journey in the winter of 1931.

Michael Sullivan (played by Tom Hanks) seems to all outside appearances a respectable, upstanding guy: He’s a stoic, unassuming man, a practicing Catholic, with a nice house, two young sons, a pretty wife, a car, and all the while goes about his business quietly. For good reason as it turns out, because his “business” happens to be acting as a hitman for the Rooneys, a local Irish mob family.

Tom Hanks in “Road to Perdition”

One unfortunate night, his son and namesake, curious about his father’s mysterious other life, follows him as he heads to “work.” Young Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses a brutal shootout from which only his father and Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) emerge. But because Connor is an incompetent, trigger-happy moron, he refuses to let the boy live with this knowledge and goes to the Sullivans’ house with the intention of taking the kid out. Except he gets the wrong one. He kills Michael’s little brother Peter and their mother instead.

Papa Rooney (who is actually called John and played by a flawless Paul Newman) is well aware of the crap-storm  about to be unleashed and hides his son. Miles away, Michael and his father hit the road to Chicago where Sullivan plans to drop his son off with relatives before he exacts his delicious revenge.

Sullivan and John both have tense relationships with their boys, but ultimately love them and commit themselves to saving their kids at all costs. If only it were so simple. John must grapple with the conundrum of choosing between his biological son Connor and his adopted son Sullivan. Sullivan, too, finds himself faced with a devastating decision, but between his son and his adopted father. In the end, it really isn’t a choice so much as it is simply a hard fact of life. Sullivan is indebted to Rooney, surely, but loves his son even as he struggles to express it (initially, anyway). And in this way the film becomes a kind of love story, as much a journey of self-discovery as it is discovery of another. Later in the film, Michael asks his father if he liked his younger brother Peter better and Sullivan replies uncomfortably, but sincerely, “You were like me. And I didn’t want you to be.” And it’s true. Early on we sense the connection between the two extends deeper than just their names. In a party scene near the beginning we see both Michaels holding up the wall and watching everyone else dance. Young Michael presents a violent streak, too. While Connor murders his brother and mother, Michael is writing lines in detention for fighting.

Jude Law, in a recent interview where he also lamented the film was sorely underrated, said the film belonged up there with the greatest of mob films. I’d go so far as to say it not only belongs alongside them, but perhaps above most of them. While Road to Perdition certainly doesn’t skimp on the violence, unlike your typical gangster film, it’s also less visceral and more emotional, much to its credit. For as much as it is a film about the endless destruction of violence, it is also a film about redemption and freedom.

Tyler Hoechlin and Tom Hanks

Many times Sullivan acknowledges that he and the Rooneys are trapped on a doomed road destined for a painful death and perhaps an even more painful afterlife; the Perdition of the title doubly refers to the town where Sullivan initially plans to leave Michael with relatives and also, obviously, to hell. Sullivan harbors no delusions of redemption for himself, but desperately searches for the proverbial wings his son will need to escape the violence permeating their lives. At one point, ironically in the basement of a church, John Rooney tells him, “This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: None of us will see Heaven.” To this Sullivan replies, “Michael could.” Indeed, the graphic novel the film is based on ends with Michael becoming a priest, a remarkable–or perhaps natural–feat considering the kid spent his youth surrounded by murder and greed. What Sullivan doesn’t realize is that his fight to preserve his son’s innocence becomes the catalyst for his own salvation. I won’t give away the movie but I will say that Sullivan never lets Michael get a taste of the guilt that plagues him and his associates.

Sullivan’s efforts are important because that’s one theme the film fails to be subtle about: Violence can be as infectious as a disease, and there’s more than one way to die from it. In the commentary, Mendes remarks, “All the characters are dead. Every member of his family, every person he’s [Young Michael] come into contact with in the story. And so in a sense, it makes it a movie populated entirely by ghosts. And that image of these ghostly figures walking around, knowing on some level, that death lies in wait for them, hangs over them in the movie.”  Mendes goes on to explain that this idea informed the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman. The opening theme, “Rock Island, 1931” boasts distinctly Celtic undertones, in tribute to the Irish characters and culture; but underneath there are ominous, foreboding tones which creep over the scene as Michael  bikes through the wintry town selling newspapers.

Paul Newman in “Road to Perdition”

Which brings me to the technical stuff. The late Conrad Hall, to whom the film is dedicated posthumously, was supposedly inspired by the artwork of Edward Hopper. That seems true enough. The cinematography is one of the film’s many strengths, not only for its beauty but also for its blatant symbolism and the effort that obviously went into crafting each seamless frame. It’s no coincidence that the film’s most beautiful scenes are journey montages: the 40-second driving scene into Chicago, the previously mentioned bike ride through town, as well as light-hearted montage of Michael playing the getaway driver while his father robs banks. But there’s also the breathtaking conclusion, when they finally arrive in Perdition, ironically a beachside paradise, where Sullivan looks out serenely over the water and his son.

So what was that epigraph all about? Well, the story is about Sullivan–it could even be argued that this film is more about his salvation than anything else–but regardless the story belongs to Michael. It is his story of his father, a man who used to be a stranger to him. The end of the film sees a boy become a man by finally understanding the one who shaped him: “When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man, or if there was just no good in him at all, I always give the same answer. I just tell them… he was my father.”

Road to Perdition is one of those quietly epic films, every bit deserving of the cult following it has picked up over the years. It’s only flaw perhaps is that the journey wasn’t just a little bit longer.

Most Underrated Kids Films…

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

I hesitate to call this a “kids” film. I loved it as a child but even more now that I’m an adult and can appreciate all the filmmaking nuances and emotional complexity. The Prince of Egypt was not only critically acclaimed, but also was nominated and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song: Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey‘s “When You Believe.” So how is it underrated? Simply by reason of not being heralded as the greatest film of all time, which it is, objectively. Seriously though, while garnering largely positive reviews this movie is often overlooked in the grand scheme of “classic” animated films in favor of Beauty and the Beast (which also won an Oscar for Best Original Song) and Aladdin and most early-nineties Disney films. One reviewer even dismissed it as a “nice Sunday school lesson.” Obviously, I disagree since this movie made it to the top of my list of Underrated Kids Films.

Before Shrek, Dreamworks revealed just a sliver of their genius with this incredibly poignant, flawless retelling of the Biblical story of Moses. Religious or not, this film is relatable and impacting on a number of levels, for as much as it is about good vs. evil it is also about self-discovery, sacrifice, and about–as in the immortal words of my favorite wizard–the difficult  choice between what is right and what it is easy.

C’mon, you know what’s happening here

The story begins with two immense sacrifices: Seti (Patrick Stewart) “sacrifices” (or so he puts it) Hebrew babies for the sake of his dynasty and a mother sacrifices raising her son for his life. Yocheved (Ofra Haza) takes baby Moses to the Nile where she sets him adrift in a basket, tears streaming down her cheeks as she sings her son one last lullaby. Moses is one blessed kid. He survives the current, various fishing nets, crocodiles, etc. only to be picked up by none other than Queen Tuya (Helen Mirren). Just like that, Moses is adopted into the royal family and grows up in massive comfort alongside his brother Rameses (an award-worthy Ralph Fiennes) into a spoiled, cocky and generally oblivious young man. Underneath it all though, Moses is a good guy who loves his family, his older, self-conscious brother especially, and even helps his future wife Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) escape when she is unjustly captured and brought to the palace. It is on this same night he helps her escape that Moses meets his true blood family–though he doesn’t know it–Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and Aaron (Jeff Goldblum). The encounter changes his life. Suddenly, his eyes are opened. He sees the suffering endured by the Hebrews and in a spontaneous, visceral reaction, accidentally kills an overseer who had been brutally whipping an old man. Moses subsequently flees, leaving his brother and his home behind.

Moses and Rameses in “The Prince of Egypt”

Writers Philip LaZebnik and Nicholas Meyer do a job with the Book of Exodus that would make Arthur Miller himself envious. Much like the famous playwright’s dramatic take on the Salem Witch trials in “The Crucible,” the writers take several interesting liberties with the ancient story while following the same general blueprint. For instance, the relationship between Moses and Rameses is fleshed out beautifully. Their dynamic is competitive, but supportive, at least in the beginning. Moses, in true younger brother fashion, carelessly gets his uptight brother into trouble, but as Rameses later says, “You were always there to get me back out of trouble again.” When Moses says good-bye to his brother the first time, it’s already heartbreaking. But that’s not the end of the film’s emotional tension. We all know the story. Moses returns to Egypt after years in the desert to famously implore Pharoah to “let his people go.” Except, that Pharoah is his adopted brother and childhood friend. Rameses has grown far more confident in his role as ruler of Egypt and by the same token, far more stubborn and unmovable. He refuses to show weakness, and so the brothers are torn even farther apart, their friendship never to be rekindled.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the film is pretty flawless. The animation is spectacular. The characters are exquisitely drawn and just as exquisitely realized by voice actors who took their roles very seriously for a mere Sunday school lesson. Bullock as Miriam sometimes sounds too modern, but not grating enough to take one out of the film. The highlights are the two leading actors, Kilmer and Fiennes as Moses and Rameses respectively. Kilmer perfectly pulls off spoiled, arrogant Moses at the beginning but somehow transitions seamlessly to the more recognizable, humble shepherd from Exodus. There’s no stutter, thankfully, but Kilmer still manages to come across as convincingly gentle in great contrast to his earlier persona. Kilmer also pulls double duty by voicing God in the film’s most beautiful sequence, not only perfectly acted but gracefully animated. This same sequence features a refreshingly distinct take on the voice of God, typically a thunderous, booming voice magnified larger than life or Morgan Freeman. The Prince of Egypt allows God a soft, whispering, but engaging voice that beckons one to Him rather than commands.

The epic score is crafted by none other than the amazing Hans Zimmer. He does a magnificent job, creating a score that marries several styles including Bedouin, Yemenite, liturgical, and klezmer, infused with Haza’s soulful harmonizing. Even more impressively many of the actors like Pfeiffer and Fiennes, do their own singing. The songs are vibrant and memorable, particularly the dark and ominous “The Plagues” which spells out the emotional rift between Moses and Rameses for the kids presumably. “Once I called you brother, once I thought the chance to make you laugh was all I ever wanted,” sings Moses. “And even now I wish that God had chose another, serving as your foe on his behalf, is the last thing that I wanted. This was my home…” Rameses responds, “You who I called brother, how could you have come to hate me so? Is this what you wanted?”

Now, that’s the Moses I remember!

But above all else, it is the film’s heart that truly connects with audiences. The writers did not just make the film dramatic pointlessly by alluding to an earlier Biblical story–that of Cain and Abel–they made it truthful, symbolic of two sides of human nature. For Rameses is not pure evil. That would be too simple. No, Rameses is all of us in our stubborness, our pride, our arrogance.  But Moses is all of us, too, at our best, at our most heroic, when we decide to stand up for what is right even when it’s hard. Maybe that does sound Sunday schoolish, but it’s also the stuff good, epic movies are made of.

Most Underrated Kids Films…

The Fox and the Hound (1981)

Easily Disney‘s most heartwarming pre-Renaissance film, The Fox & the Hound, loosely based on Daniel P. Mannix‘s novel of the same name, unravels the story of fox Tod and bloodhound Copper and their transcendent friendship. At the beginning of the film Tod loses his mother in Bambilike fashion to local hunters. He is shortly taken in by the kind-hearted Widow Tweed, and when she’s not looking, watched over by three birds, the clumsy Dinky and Boomer, and the sagacious, if stereotypical Big Momma (voiced beautifully by Pearl Bailey). Meanwhile, not far away, hunter Amos Slade brings home fun-loving puppy Copper, presumably to assist and eventually replace his older, cantankerous hound Chief. One day, Copper and Todd stumble upon each other in the woods. The two become fast friends, which they promise to stay “forever.” But external forces–namely their predetermined roles in the grand scheme of life: Copper is the hunter and Tod is the prey–soon separate them. Copper comfortably assumes his part as a beloved, much-treasured hound dog. Tod is more reluctant to accept the way of the world and attempts to continue his friendship with Copper, but finds himself rejected. Then, when a chase gone wrong injures Chief, Copper finds his loyalty torn between his father figure and his childhood friend.

Friends forever: Tod and Copper

The Fox & the Hound is one of Disney’s lesser known and therefore less celebrated works. The film was financially successful, but garnered generally lukewarm reviews despite being hailed as “charming” and “likeable.” It’s true the story does suffer from lack of development. Tod and Copper’s friendship is thinly developed, while their respective relationships with their caretakers are far more solid and therefore more heartbreaking. Nevertheless, the parallels between American racism are easily drawn and endow the film with a lot more depth than most if not each of its predecessors and successors.

The film is extremely well-crafted on an aesthetic level, particularly the climactic fight scene between Tod, Copper and a huge black bear. But the music is a particular high point. Some of Disney’s best songs belong to this film, none of them written by Alan Menken. Big Momma’s “Best of Friends” is a thing of beauty, not just for the warmth Bailey naturally exudes with her voice, but also for the major punch such simplistic lyrics manage to pack:  “When these moments have passed will that friendship last? Who can say there’s a way? Oh I hope…I hope it never ends…” Similarly, “Good-bye May Seem Forever” and its heartbreaking lyrics imbue the movie with tenderness and what’s more, emotional complexity that somehow rises above an at times average story with little in the way of character development and several contrived plot devices. The song comes after Slade’s hatred for Tod boils to the point that Widow Tweed must leave Tod in the game preserve for his own safety. On the ride there, she recalls the good times they had together and as she leaves a confused Tod, tears in her eyes and hurt in his, a chorus croons–perhaps cheesily, but no less sadly–“Goodbye may seem forever, farewell is like the end. But in my heart’s the memory, and there you’ll always be.” The score is fantastic as well, more than effective in capturing the general tone of the film and hitting all the right notes in every scene.

Underrated Kids Movies

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Arguably one of Disney‘s most beautifully animated films, Atlantis, sadly, is also one of its least successful. It’s not all the fault of the movie. Atlantis had the supreme misfortune of being released into the theaters at the same time as the wildly popular Shrek and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Despite aggressive online marketing campaigns, the film performed poorly at the box office, although the DVD and VHS sales and rentals soared through the roof.

Milo and Princess Kida

Atlantis tells the story of the idealistic, somewhat over-zealous but always endearing cartographer/linguist Milo Thatch (voiced to nerdy perfection by Michael J. Fox) and his obsession with Atlantis. As a kind of prologue, we the see moment that Atlantis is submerged beneath the sea several thousand years before. Thatch’s obsession ultimately gets him fired from his job, but he shortly receives a proposal from a friend of his grandfather, a wealthy eccentric called Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney). Whitmore wants Thatch to head the expedition to find Atlantis after retrieving an integral artifact that will lead them to the city. Thatch’s crew includes a wide range of bizarre characters, specialists in all areas: a medical doctor, a demolitions expect, and a mole-like geologist aptly called Mole among others. Strangely enough, it’s the normal looking people–Commander Rourke (James Garner) and Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian)–who are the ones to watch out for; once Milo and his team find Atlantis, these two attempt to steal the Atlantean’s power source from the King (Leonard Nimoy) and his daughter Princess Kida (Cree Summer), with whom Milo falls in love. The third act sees Milo and the crew trying to save the city.

Like I said before, the film is incredibly beautiful to look at, particularly the underwater sequences. James Newton Howard, whom I adore, creates a perfectly enchanting score, grand and magical, swelling at all the right moments. The voice actors do great work, Fox especially, followed by Nimoy, who probably didn’t have to try all that hard to sound like a wise, old man, but shines nonetheless. Honorable mentions go out to Summer, Jim Varney, Phil Morris as Dr. Sweet, and Don Novello as the sarcastic, bomb-crazy Vinny.

But most of all, kudos to Disney for trying out a new formula and in my opinion succeeding. A lot of the criticism directed at this film was due to the fact that it shied away from the usual blueprint, the most noticeable being the lack of songs. Songs would’ve only conflicted with the narrative here and changed the tone in a bad way. As it stands, Atlantis is a film about discovering yourself through the realization of your dreams, and with this kind of theme, just a bit more complex than typical Disney fodder, comes a kind of seriousness that a two minute pause so that Milo could sing about it could have taken away from the movie. And it’s not as if the lack of songs makes the film any less heartwarming.

Most Underrated Kids Films…

Anastasia

A more historically inaccurate film probably doesn’t exist. But who cares? If nothing else, I’m sure it prompted several eight-year-olds (myself included) to learn a little bit about Russian history. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman‘s Anastasia (1997) owes much of its success to following the nineties Disney formula even better than Disney. The box office receipts were high and the critical reception was positive. Moreover, the film was nominated for several awards, including Oscars for Best Original Song and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. It is to date the studio’s most popular film. So how is it underrated? Well, much like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when it wasn’t being criticized for its inaccuracy, it was written off as superficially enjoyable, without any regard for the skillful animation and meticulous attention to detail.

Anastasia tells the hypothetical story of the famous Grand Duchess who survives her family’s assassination only to be shunted into an orphanage after a head injury causes amnesia. At eightteen, Anastasia, now called Anya (voiced first by Kirsten Dunst, then by Meg Ryan) leaves the orphanage with her head full of Paris since the only emblem she carries of affection is a gold necklace that reads “Together in Paris.” Unbeknownst to Anya, it was given to her by her grandmother the Grand Emperess Marie.   It’s not long before Anya comes across the silver-tongued con man Dimitri (enthusiastically voiced by John Cusack) and his lovable accomplice Vladmir (Kelsey Grammar) who are also going to Paris for a slightly different purpose. They want to meet Marie, too, but for the ten thousand rubles she has promised to anyone who can return her lost granddaughter to her. Not realizing that they have the real Anastasia on their hands, Dimitri and Vlad head off to Paris with Anya, narrowly evading the pernicious attempts of Rasputin (a hilarious Christopher Lloyd) and his hesitant bat henchman Bartok (another hilarious effort from Hank Azaria).

Okay, so it’s since been proven that Anastasia did not survive her family’s execution and Rasputin had little to do with their untimely demise: that title belongs to the Bolsheviks. But it is for the kids, and Nicholas & Alexandra wasn’t the most historically accurate movie either.

Anastasia and Dimitri

Like I said, Anastasia borrows many elements from Disney, which can either be seen as contemptible or genius. Rasputin and Bartok resemble Aladdin‘s Jafar and Iago in their dynamic, just as Anastasia and Dimitri enjoy a tension-riddled romance like so many Disney couples before them. Dimitri, though, is a welcome change from the typical Disney male protagonist for his moral ambiguity, at least at first.

The animation is absolutely gorgeous, with apparently hand-drawn backgrounds so that it almost looks as if the action is taking place in paintings. The meticulous attention to detail is also commendable, especially during the “Once Upon A December” sequence when we see Anastasia‘s brother (eight years old for some reason) limping slightly as he enters the ballroom with his parents. Alexei is perhaps one of history’s most famous hemophiliacs, and the disease often left him incapacitated, limping or unable to walk entirely. That and the score by David Newman–whose father, interestingly, scored the 1956 live-action version–is beautiful, too, certainly deserving of its nomination.

Underrated Kids Films

It’s possible that I’m just a little obsessed with the films of my youth. Anybody who knows me knows I love me some kids films,  Disney especially. Like most nineties babies, I was raised on Disney. These films defined my childhood, and even beyond those early years, I owe so much of my taste and fascination with film in general to these stories that that first touched my heart, when I couldn’t quite process the intricacies of human relationships and knew only enough to laugh or to cry at all the appropriate times.

As an adult I do often (and shamelessly) return to movies like All Dogs Go to Heaven, Tarzan, Meet the Robinsons simply because they’re fun to watch and for nostalgic purposes. But the next few films I want to spotlight transcend simple enjoyment. They have become my own personal classics.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) is not one of Disney’s most successful films. That’s not to say it didn’t do well. It opened to generally positive reviews and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar. It was also nominated for a Razzie, and Victor Hugo fanatics were not pleased with all the changes, namely to the characters.

Obviously they forgot what Disney is and what audience the company primarily caters to; otherwise, I don’t know how they could expect one of the darkest tales in the history of literature, unsettling even for adult readers, to be served up as is to masses of children.

I’m sorry, but Phoebus cannot be a cad who only wants to sleep with Esmeralda and proceeds to ignore her after his plans fall through. Let’s leave girls something to look forward to, shall we?

Instead, Disney–understandably–transformed the despiable Captain Phoebus  of Hugo’s novel into a heroic young soldier with a heart as gold as his armor. Esmeralda, too, is not quite as clueless nor as vulnerable as her literary counterpart. For the purposes of entertaining, if not contributing to modern young minds already full of Girl Power and the Spice Girls, Esmeralda is a fiery, sassy, spirited young woman who alternates between on-stage stripteases (she’s voiced by Demi Moore, by the way) and masterfully wielding whatever weapon is at hand against her adversaries.

Quasimodo makes perhaps the starkest change from the incoherent, deaf bell ringer–although he keeps the hunchback and misshapen features–to a sensitive, eloquent young man who longs for a bit of human connection. It’s no wonder. He’s spent most of his life confined in Notre Dame cathedral with only a trio of gargoyles in the vein of the Three Stooges to keep him company. His only human relationship is far more sick and twisted than he initially knows. Judge Claude Frollo, the villain, remains the most like his novel counterpart–a hypocritical zealot and would-be rapist, although his role has been split: He’s a judge now and the archdeacon is a kindly old man  (voiced by a sagacious David Ogden Stiers) who serves as the film’s occasional moral compass.  Frollo makes a grotesque father figure, thanks in no small part to his direct hand in the death of Quasimodo’s Romani mother and the fact that,  before the archdeacon dissuades him, he was mere seconds from committing infanticide against baby Quasi.

Do I really need to caption this?

For the most part, Quasimodo obediently minds Frollo, who will not allow the kid outside of the belltower. But his loneliness soon gets the better of him and he crashes the Feast of Fools in the streets of Paris where he is famously crowned the King of Fools. Unfortunately, his excursion does not end well. In a heartbreaking scene (one that I can never watch all the way through, even at 22) he is strapped to a wheel and pummeled with fruit and trash by a jeering crowd while Frollo looks on with disgusting smugness. But all is not bad. Quasimodo makes a friend in Esmeralda, who also disobeys Frollo by stopping the crowd from taunting him. And here’s where my divide with the critics of the changes in this film begins, for the movie largely preserves the novel’s darker aspects and even incorporates some new ones of its own.

At one point, Quasimodo sings, “I knew I’d never know that warm and loving glow, though I might wish with all my might. No face as hideous as my face was ever meant for Heaven’s light.”

In a clever juxtaposition, Quasimodo’s song about Heaven’s light segues into Frollo’s “Hellfire,” a very twisted take on the Confiteur (prayer of forgiveness in the Catholic Church). Frollo’s song is one of my favorite sequences in the entire film. It’s not only beautifully drawn and engaging to watch, but it also manages to remain textually faithful at the same time. There’s really no need to keep Frollo the tortured figure from the novel. They could’ve just as easily made him a flat-out evil hypocrite who would like nothing better than to see the extermination of all gypsies, just because they’re weird and dark. At first glance that’s all he appears to be. That’s certainly what I thought of him as a little kid. On subsequent viewings, I’ve come to the realization that the directors subtly imbue Frollo with a complexity that was lost on me as a child.

“Hellfire” ends with an emphatic, pleading Kyrie Eleison. “God have mercy on me. God have mercy on her,” sings Frollo. He’s delusional for sure. He’s such a twisted character you can’t really feel sorry for him, but the directors do at least keep his fundamental arc: a man torn between his faith (or what he believes is faith) and his own sinister inclinations. For however one feels personally about faith, about Catholic dogma particularly, Frollo believes and wants to be righteous, despite failing miserably at it.

So character-wise I think they did just fine.

Visually, the film is stunning. Vivid blues, purples, reds and beams of sunlight fill up the screen as the animators meticulously recreate fifteenth century Paris, the landscape, the costumes, and most impressively the architecture. The elaborate infrastructure of the church, the stained-glass, even the solemnity of Mass, is all beautifully captured in the picture.

But the music is in a class all its own. This is hands down Menken’s best score, ominous and reqiem-inspired, endowed with Latin chants and a perfectly angelic  choir. The music often guides the film and takes a more active role than usual in the narration alongside the film’s actual narrator, gypsy leader Clopin. In the case of “Sanctuary,” it raises the tension, while  “Into the Sunlight,” swells cathartically. It’s also important to know that I’m listening to the score while writing this. 🙂

My favorite part of the entire thing is probably the ending. I didn’t use to like it. I was used to watching films that ended with the protagonist in love. Interestingly, I can think of only one Disney princess (Pocahontas) who didn’t need to find a significant other in order to have a happy ending, but I’ll leave that alone. But I like that Quasimodo didn’t get the girl (Phoebus and Esmeralda end up together predictably). He gets something arguably better. His new friends help him out into the light where he is greeted by, at first timid, then excited Parisians who embrace him as a hero. But before they do that, while they stand back dubiously, a young girl walks up to him and tenderly caresses his face. Clopin then proclaims him the city’s savior and in the grandest show of acceptance, the townspeople carry him through the streets of Paris on their shoulders.

Yes, it’s arguable that Disney bastardized Hugo’s very serious novel and oversimplified themes of loneliness, isolation, alienation and intolerance. But it doesn’t do an unforgivable job of it.