**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
screenplay by Jule Selbo and Flip Kobler & Cindy Marcus
directed by Bradley Raymond
by Walter Chaw Although the animation is sloppy and the music is, to say the least, uninspiring, Disney's direct-to-video sequel to 1996's underestimated and genuinely disturbing The Hunchback of Notre Dame is bolstered by an astonishing voice cast (excepting Jennifer Love Hewitt), an interesting racial tension, and a storyline I haven't encountered since Pete's Dragon. Taking place about six years after the events of the first film (judging by the age of Phoebus (Kevin Kline) and Esmeralda's (Demi Moore) suspiciously Caucasian son, Zephyr (Haley Joel Osment)), The Hunchback of Notre Dame II details another seemingly-doomed love affair between the hideous Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) and a beautiful lady love, this one named Madellaine (Hewitt).
Part of the traveling "Cirque de Sarousch," which is run by the vainglorious Sarousch (Michael McKean) himself, Madellaine has a bad self-image and a heart of gold despite being involved in the cirque's shiftless scheme to cutpurse their audiences. Quasi's hallucinated gargoyle pals (Charles Kimbrough, Jane Withers, and Jason Alexander) do the Disney anthropomorphic comic-sidekick thing that only really grates during a bizarre doo-wop number ("Fa-la-la-la-Falling in Love") that would sound more at home in Miles Goodman and Alan Mencken's score for Frank Oz's Little Shop of Horrors. The songs of The Hunchback of Notre Dame II are generally awful, indicated as they are by atonal melodies and lyrical gaffes like, "There's no one I'd rather pick/we're closer than frack and frick." Not only impossible to sing along to, the soundtrack is barely identifiable as music. Japanese fans of Hewitt's warbling should be well pleased.
Using a gem-studded bell (already a bad idea, the bell compounds its practical application problems by being studded on the inside) called "La Fidel" as a metaphor for being "pretty on the inside," The Hunchback of Notre Dame II carries this "book by the cover" lesson through to a marital conflict between Phoebus and Esmeralda concerning the stereotyping of gypsies as nomadic thieves. The subplot is an admirable one but predictably mishandled. While Phoebus gets into trouble with the wife for deducing that the cirque is a larcenous troupe of criminal carnies, his suspicions are clearly well-founded, thus casting Esmeralda as a hysterical knee-jerk race-card alarmist--undermining, to some extent, the effectiveness of the central bell metaphor.
Quasi's pathetic whittling of little wood fetishes survives intact from the first film (as does his uncanny resemblance to Marty Feldman's Igor from Young Frankenstein), but what is irredeemably lost is the consistent darkness of tone, the thinly-disguised sexuality, and the unusual resolve towards the bittersweet of the original. Replacing it is an unintentionally hilarious finale in which the just romantic pairings include a spunky goat and Jason Alexander's fat gargoyle. It is, in other words, a thing to show your kids when you want to answer a lot of unanswerable questions.
DisneyDVD presents The Hunchback of Notre Dame II in a lovely and vibrant anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer. Any deficiencies in richness or sharpness are best attributed to the cheapness of the production. The soundmix, in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 options, offers an aural environment rich with ambience and clarity. There aren't many opportunities for either audio format to get much of a workout here, but what could've been tinny and flat is warm and inviting.
Special features include a five-minute "Behind the Scenes with Jennifer Love Hewitt" that features a banal interview with the banal also-ran ending with two minutes of Ms. Hewitt singing in a recording booth, a pair of diverting "Festival of Fun" games (one of which actually teaches how to read music), and a horrendously-animated "A Gargoyle's Life: It's Not Easy Being a Gargoyle" that plays a good deal like Jason Alexander doing beat poetry. The disc is rounded out by the standard Disney marketing overkill with trailers for Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan & Jane, Max Keeble's Big Move, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Schoolhouse Rock 30th Anniversary, American Legends, and the standard Disney DVD montage. Originally published: March 25, 2002.