I recently lost a bet with my friend Mark Diba, and now he’s making me watch seven dreadful movies produced by DisneyToon Studios. Follow along with my decent into madness HERE.
I am now three movies into this silly bet, and already I am beginning to feel exhausted. These are movies that are not just bad, but aggressively uninteresting. They’re utterly devoid of any compelling themes or character arcs and are, in fact, so empty that their running times of approximately 70 minutes feel like an excruciating endurance test.
So, you know, I’m not really sure what there is to say about The Hunchback of Notre Dame II.
The story picks up several years after the end of the first movie, and… well, not much has changed. Esmeralda and Phoebus have a son, because these movies require a precocious little kid as an audience identifier, but other than that, it might as well be the day after. Quasimodo is still living in the bell tower while Phoebus and Esmeralda are still hanging out in Paris. The circus comes into town and Quasimodo falls for a performer named Madellaine, meanwhile a boring villain carries out an uninteresting scheme to steal a bell for no other reason than “that’s what’s supposed to happen in these Disney movies.”
There’s really so little here to discuss that the most interesting aspect of the film is honestly how stunningly bad it looks. This is a movie that looks like it was made over the weekend. There’s no dimensionality to any of the visuals, color temperature shifts wildly between shots, and the animation itself is a nightmare. Characters lack weight, features float around on people’s faces, and mouth movements barely even try to line up with the dialogue. Best of all is the way the same characters end up looking like totally different people in every new shot. It’s like the film was made without model sheets defining the look of these characters. I found myself cracking up at the absurdity of the whole thing.
The movie also begrudgingly tries to be a musical, but all of the songs are awful. Again, there’s the feeling that someone must have written the lyrics to these songs during a lunch break because it’s all so lazy and perfunctory and they don’t do anything to inform our understanding of this story or its characters. It all amounts to wasted time taken to say nothing of value, which is incidentally a concise description of the film itself.
Disney’s 1996 original is a deeply flawed film, but there is so much it wants to say about prejudice, hypocrisy, and religious piety. This film has none of those ambitions and ultimately can’t even adequately settle on a single theme. It sort of tries to deal with the idea that someone’s worth is not determined by their outward appearance (a theme already explored in the extraordinary Beauty and the Beast), but it can’t even commit to that. Quasimodo struggles with feelings of inadequacy based on his appearance, and they try to mirror that with Madellaine, but because Madellaine is drawn as being traditionally attractive it feels weird and insincere.
The movie also pays lip service to the original film’s themes of prejudice by calling attention to the fact that Phoebus is suspicious of the circus people in the same way Frollo was suspicious of the gypsies, but then he ends up being right, so I guess his prejudice was justified after all? Also, it’s weird that they have Phoebus as the one who has issues with prejudice in this film because the original movie clearly establishes that Phoebus is anything but prejudiced. It’d be an interesting idea to explore how even with the best intentions, people in a position of privilege are inherently prone to prejudice, but this movie has no interest in exploring ideas that interesting or nuanced.
There is some sweetness to the relationship between Quasimodo and Madellaine, but it all just amounts to empty texture. There’s no meaningful arc to their romance. It’s a cliché, but even using the tired old trope of Madellaine establishing a fraudulent romance with Quasimodo only to wind up genuinely falling in love would be more interesting, but that doesn’t happen here. There’s never any sense that Madellaine is really manipulating Quasimodo, and is, in fact portrayed as being unerringly sweet and sincere from the word go.
If Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a movie that’s too timid to follow through with the important things it wants to say, then The Hunchback of Notre Dame II is a movie with nothing to say, but dumbly goes on for an hour and ten minutes anyway. Hunchback is a movie that sands off its hard edges so as not to offend while Hunchback II wouldn’t know a hard edge if it was hit in the face with one. It’s a dull, boring, empty headed film that’s most interesting quality is how profoundly terrible it looks.