The Hunchback of Notre Dame Is One Of Disney’s Modern Classics

Courtesy:  Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Walt Disney Studios has largely made its fame on taking classic literary stories and adapting them for the big screen.  For the most part, doing so has led to great success for Disney.  So it goes without saying that when Disney’s heads decided to bring Victor Hugo’s literary classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame to audiences in animated form doing so was a pretty big risk.  That is because this is hardly the happiest of stories.  Somehow though, Disney managed to pull off the job and craft what should be considered to be one of the company’s modern classics.  Whereas its renditions of The Jungle Book, Peter Pan, Cinderella and others are considered the company’s original classics, its take on Hugo’s literary masterpiece fits nicely into the category of modern classics.  This is the case for a variety of reasons. In watching this rendition, one can’t help but be taken back to Disney’s golden era.  From the subtlety of the mix of hand drawn and digital animation, to the big song cues to the animation, one actually feels as if one is actually watching a stage presentation made into an animated film.  And while it may be a little bit scary for younger audiences with its darker elements, it still stands as one of the better works in Disney’s modern era.

Viewers that closely watch the newly re-issued Hunchback of Notre Dame I/II combo pack will catch a subtlety that others might not that harkens back to Disney’s golden era.  That subtlety is a mix of animation styles.  There are a handful of scenes throughout this movie that show on one side, the rougher, less “streamlined” animation style sitting side by side.  This is explained briefly in the original “Making of featurette” that was included in the movie’s previous release.  Actor Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) explains the reality behind the misconception that all animation done for Disney movies—at the time—was done by computer.  The difference between the hand drawn animation and digital animation is pretty clear.  And the very fact that animators tried to duplicate the animation of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men” even in the slightest in this feature makes it worthy of at least a little bit of respect.

If the attempt by animators to replicate the animation of Disney’s most famed animators isn’t enough for viewers, then perhaps the story’s musical numbers will help win over audiences.  Composer Alan Menken returned for this movie after having massive success nearly a decade prior on another of Disney’s biggest modern classics in The Little Mermaid.  The animation works in tandem with the big musical numbers to really leave viewers feeling like they are watching a stage presentation in animated form.  That’s even more the case now that the movie has been re-issued on Blu-ray.  There is just a certain quality on which one can’t put one’s finger that pulls audiences in and makes the story believable.  That’s the sign of a quality work.

If the song cues and the animation aren’t enough, then the movie’s more comical moments will entertain audiences.  Even in some of the movie’s darker moments, the story’s writers come up with some pretty funny moments to help lighten the mood.  A prime example of this comes late in the movie, in the final showdown sequence.  As Quasimodo and Frollo face off in the cathedral’s tower, soldiers are below, trying to break in.  Laverne (voiced by the late Mary Wickers) helps in the fight by calling on a large group of birds.  This moment is a tribute not just to the classic Warner Brothers movie, The Wizard of Oz, but also to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, The Birds.  While the latter tribute may have been unintentional, it is there.  It’s just one of so many moments that will have viewers laughing.  Add in Jason Alexander’s comedic timing and viewers get more than enough laughs to offset the movie’s darker moments.  Those darker moments being offset and the movie’s enjoyable musical numbers and hybrid animation together make The Hunchback of Notre Dame one of the better movies from Disney’s modern era.  One might even go so far as to call it one of Disney’s modern classics.  It is available now on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack in stores and online.  It can be ordered direct from the Disney store at http://www.disneystore.com/the-hunchback-of-notre-dame-blu-ray-and-dvd-combo-pack/mp/1331583/1000316/ and at the Disney DVD store at http://disneydvd.disney.go.com/the-hunchback-of-notre-dame-two-movie-collection.html

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Les Miserables Not So Miserable In Its Home Release

Courtesy:  Universal Pictures

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Adapting classical literature for the big screen is one of Hollywood’s most time honored traditions.  Countless books have been adapted for the silver screen since the industry’s Golden Era.  Just as common for movie studios to do is to adapt stage plays that have themselves been adapted from books.  So as common as this practice is even now in Hollywood’s modern era, it takes a lot to make a movie of this fashion stand out in today’s overly crowded movie market.  Enter the newest big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic story, Les Miserables.

The latest adaptation of Victor Hugo’s timeless story of redemption is one of the best movies of 2012.  And now that it has been released to BD/DVD/Digital combo pack, it has proven to be one of this year’s best home releases.   It isn’t the year’s best.  But it does come close as it struggles with at least two glaring issues.  Those issues are the movie’s scene transitions and its general cinematography.  Much of the cinematography issue goes hand in hand with the problematic scene transitions.  Though there’s just as much problem with this movie’s shooting style not directly linked to the transitions in question.  Despite having issues with shooting and scene transitions, the movie’s positives far outweigh its negatives.  And those positives are many.

The primary positive to the home release of Les Miserables is its abundance of bonus features.  The bonus features included in the movie’s new home release offer lots of interesting tidbits that make the movie more worthy of respect.  For starters, viewers learn through the bonus features that star Hugh Jackman actually went through a rather rigorous diet and exercise regimen in order to obtain a specific look of a convict who has spent much of his life in prison.  It definitely worked as he looked every part the convincing character.  Just as interesting to learn in watching the bonus features is the vocal work that went into singing each scene.  Most audiences know by now that the entire movie was sung.  It shows how seriously those behind the movie took its creation.  The bonus features expand on the musical aspect of the movie.  Jackman and company explain the training that was undertaken and how the cast and crew balanced the noise of the cast and instruments with the cast singing.  Part of that balance came in the form of carpeting on the scenery floors to cancel out footsteps and keeping the pianist in a soundproof box, just to point out a little bit.  One could go on for quite some time discussing the role of the bonus features in the new home release of Les Miserables.  But viewers would be better left to check out the remaining bonus features for themselves.  That’s because there is so much more to cover in this new home release.

The bonus features included in the new home release of Les Miserables go a long way toward making the movie better at home than it was in theaters.  So what else could help elevate the movie?  How about the director’s commentary?  Director Tom Hooper discusses a variety of topics throughout the course of the movie.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his commentary is how he and writers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil adapted not just the famed stage play but also the original literary work into one full big screen work.  Those who have read the novel likely recognize the combination.  But those who are more familiar with the stage presentation will appreciate this little nugget of information.  It explains away the order of events in the movie in comparison to the stage work.  This is just one more factor that makes Les Miserables better than it was originally given credit for in theaters.  And yet again, it’s more proof of the value of special features on a movie’s home release.

Speaking of the movie’s audio commentary, the commentary involuntarily points out one more positive to the movie.  That positive is the movie’s casting.  Experienced fans will recognize both Samantha Barks and Colm Wilkinson from the 25th anniversary performance of the musical from London’s O2 arena. Samantha Barks reprises her role here as Eponine.  Wilkinson on the other hand actually plays the bishop.  This role is just as important as that of Jean Valjean in that it is the bishop who first helps Valjean turn around his life.  He showed in his performance here that his vocal chops are just as sharp as ever.

Just as interesting as Wilkinson and Bark returning for this adaptation of Les Miserables is the mention by [Tom] Hooper that casting Eddie Redmayne was quite the choice considering so many of his fellow actors had also played the role of Marius.  One can only imagine how nerve wracking it had to have been for Redmayne to have been so new to the role and surrounded by those who were so experienced in his role.  He pulled off the role quite well though.  This little piece of information, along with everything else that Hooper discusses in the audio commentary makes the movie that much more enjoyable.  Though, it should be pointed out that while he does discuss the camera work, there is no apology for his shooting style.  It is that shooting style that is really the movie’s one major downfall.

The music, acting, and scenery make this latest adaptation of Les Miserables a huge hit, as do the bonus features and audio commentary.  For all of this movie’s shining positives, there is one glaring negative that none of the positives can erase.  That negative is the general cinematography.  It, along with some of the scene transitions, makes things a little bit difficult to handle; so difficult in fact that they could leave viewers feeling slightly dizzy and even confused.  The problem with the cinematography is that throughout the movie, Hooper tries too hard to catch the emotion of his cast.  The resultant effect is that it makes it seem as if the cast is over emoting, thus making the acting seem a little bit campy. On the other hand, the rough scene transitions do eventually make way for smoother transitions, thus making the movie that much more bearable and more worth the watch, whether one is an experienced fan of this classic musical or not.

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Ella Enchanted A Funny Fairy Tale Spoof

Courtesy:  Lionsgate/Miramax

Courtesy: Lionsgate/Miramax

Actress Anne Hathaway recently took center stage in what could be argued to be one of the biggest roles of her career as Fantine in the latest big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  Ironically enough former American Idol star Adam Lambert has just come out, slamming Hathaway her Les Miserables co-stars, claiming that they can’t sing.  The young Mr. Lambert obviously showed his ignorance as Hathaway shined throughout her performance here.  And her performance in Les Miserables isn’t the first time that she has shown her vocal talents.  She also showed her ability in the 1994 Lionsgate/Miramax Films presentation of Ella Enchanted.

 Nearly two decades have passed since Ella Enchanted first debuted.  When it first debuted, it was met with mixed reviews.  But hindsight is twenty-twenty.  Anyone who saw the recent Julia Roberts/Lily Collins Snow White spoof, Mirror Mirror can attest to this.  The similarities between the two movies are rather obvious.  Considering that, looking back on Ella Enchanted, it’s actually quite the enjoyable fairy-tale spoof.  What audiences get in this movie is a story that pokes fun at the classic, Cinderella.  While it may be a fairy tale at its most basic level, Ella Enchanted isn’t one of those fairy tales that’s aimed at a specific audience.  Being that it’s a spoof of a fairy tale, it’s actually enjoyable enough that both boys and girls will enjoy it as will parents.  Most interesting of all is that what makes Ella Enchanted so enjoyable isn’t so much Hathaway’s acting here, but rather her supporting cast.  Audiences of all ages will love the comedic timing of the ogres and the elves throughout the story.  At one point late in the story, the ogres are helping Ella to save Prince Charmont.  They take down one of the guards and start to “season him” just as Ella stops them.  They look at her, and one of them asks in one of the story’s funniest lines, “Can’t we get him to go?”  In other darker movies, this would have been an unsettling moment.  But in the context of this story, it’s just one of many laugh out loud moments presented for audiences.  The elves make for their own laughs with their antics, too.  The musical number put on by the elves when Slannen brings Ella back to his village will have any audience laughing.  And that Slannen is entirely unlike the other elves is even funnier.  In a bizarre way, his mentality is reminiscent of Herbie the elf from the classic Rankin Bass holiday special, Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer

The ogres and the elves make for their own share of laughs throughout the length of Ella Enchanted.  They aren’t the only supporting cast that makes the movie enjoyable.  Fellow co-star and veteran actor Cary Elwes makes for even more laughs as the vile Prince Regent Edgar.  It’s fitting that Elwes was cast for the role considering his previous roles in The Princess Bride (1987), Hot Shots (1991), and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).  All three movies were themselves spoofs, just like this one.  So being at least his fourth time in such a movie, putting on his comedic best was already old hat to him.  But despite that, he still put forth his best foot and added so much enjoyment to the movie.  He even makes it clear in the movie’s bonus behind the scenes feature, “The Magical World of Ella Enchanted” how much he enjoyed working on the movie. Of course the movie’s main bonus feature offers more than just Elwes’ own view on being cast in the role of Edgar.  It also goes into a discussion on the seriousness with which director Tommy O’Haver took helming the movie both from the vantage point of the acting and the production.  It also serves to provide a tidbit of information that further disproves the uneducated and illogical view spewed recently by former American Idol finalist Adam Lambert regarding the talent of Hathaway and her cast mates in Les Miserables.  Viewers will get that and more in checking out “The Magical World of Ella Enchanted.”

In watching the main bonus feature associated with Ella Enchanted, viewers will gain more appreciation for the movie in seeing how seriously director Tommy O’Haver took helming the project.  Through both his own words and those of others who worked on the movie, it’s obvious that he wanted to get the most laughs possible without being too over the top silly.  He did just that, too.  His guidance on every aspect of the movie helped to make it one of the spoof genre’s funnier movies from the 90s.  Along with proving his devotion to the movie and the resultant effect, “The Magical World of Ella Enchanted” also reveals that when Anne Hathaway takes on Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’ in a musical number during the movie, it actually is her singing.  In a business in which so many actors do little more than lip synch to a track, she proved here (and later in the movie) that she really can sing.  This comes across as something minor when examined by itself.  But when examined in tandem with her performance in the recently released big screen adaptation of Les Miserables, audiences will appreciate even more her talent as both an actress and as a singer.  It proves that the comments recently made by former American Idol finalist Adam Lambert about her and her cast mates in this major motion picture are entirely baseless and thoughtless.  She is definitely a talented singer and an equally talented actress.  Both Les Miserables and Ella Enchanted prove that, using hindsight.  And now thanks to Lionsgate, both a whole new generation of audiences will understand that as will the generation who grew up with this underappreciated fairy tale spoof flick. That’s because it has been re-issued on a two disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack by Lionsgate and Miramax.  It’s available now in stores and online.  It can be ordered online direct via the Lionsgate online store at http://www.lionsgateshop.com/product.asp?Id=27239&TitleParentId=7229

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Les Miserables Not 2012′s Best, But Close To It

Courtesy:  Universal Pictures

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Adapting classical literature for the big screen is one of Hollywood’s most time honored traditions.  Countless books have been adapted for the silver screen since the industry’s Golden Era.  Just as common for movie studios to do is to adapt stage plays that have themselves been adapted from books.  So as common as this practice is even now in Hollywood’s modern era, it takes a lot to make a movie of this fashion stand out in today’s overly crowded movie market.  Enter the newest big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic story, Les Miserables.

The latest adaptation of Victor Hugo’s timeless story of redemption is one of the best movies of 2012.   It isn’t the year’s best.  But it does come close as it struggles with at least two glaring issues.  Those issues are the movie’s scene transitions and its general cinematography.  Much of the cinematography issue goes hand in hand with the problematic scene transitions.  Though there’s just as much problem with this movie’s shooting style not directly linked to the transitions in question.  Despite having issues with shooting and scene transitions, the movie’s positives far outweigh its negatives.  And those positives are many.

The most obvious problem weighing down this latest adaptation of Les Miserables is its shooting style (I.E. its cinematography).  Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) makes a valiant attempt to bring out as much of the emotion as possible from each scene with his shooting style.  The problem is that he tried too hard.  Throughout the story’s near three-hour run time, this shooting style is so consistent that it could potentially leave audiences feeling somewhat dizzy and even confused.  The cameras spin, cut, and make every other possible transition so much that it leaves audiences not knowing where they are going to go next.  It happens so much that it would be no surprise if it leaves some audiences so bothered by it that it makes audiences contemplate just walking out because they can’t take feeling the way which they feel.  The issue with the shooting style is just the tip of the iceberg for this movie’s problems.  To make matters worse, the shooting style is at times linked directly to its problematic scene transitions.

Anyone who has seen Les Miserable live on stage knows that while they take time, the scene transitions are smooth enough to keep track of exactly what’s going on in the story.  The case with the latest on-screen adaptation is the polar opposite of the stage play.  The scene transitions in this version happen so fast that viewers almost need a program to keep up with what’s happening.  This is one of the areas in which Hooper obviously struggled to do honor to the legacy established by this timeless classic.  Rather than making smooth transitions, it felt almost as if much of the movie was just a load of scenes tied together with jump cut edits.  Add in that problematic shooting style, and audiences get a work that felt anything but fluid.  Rather it felt like each scene was piecemealed together.  The two factors together made the movie noticeably less enjoyable than it could have been, despite the outstanding performance on the part of both Jackman and co-star Anne Hathaway.

While Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises, Get Smart, The Princess Diaries) isn’t technically a veteran in the acting business, she surprisingly proved herself in the role of Fantine.  Her chops as a singer were the most impressive part of her performance.  The emotion with which she sang made her portrayal fully believable.  There are those who have alleged that she was doing little more than simply hamming it up for the cameras.  But that obviously isn’t the case.  Considering her previous roles, this could finally be the one to catapult her to the upper echelons of the movie industry.  And while he is already in the businesses’ upper echelons, the choice of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean was common sense considering his current track record both on stage and screen.  He carried the movie on his shoulders.  Watching his moment of redemption at the story’s end will leave any viewer with more than just a tear in his or her eye.  Perhaps the only poor choice in casting this movie was that of Russell Crowe.  Crowe’s portrayal of Inspector Javert worked on the superficial level.  He is old enough that he looked the part.  But his general performance simply was not believable.  Luckily that was about the only poor choice in casting this take on the time honored classic.  That being the case, it is no surprise that this take on Les Miserables has been nominated for a handful of Golden Globes.  And it would be no surprise if it makes the Oscar nod list more than once, too.

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Philip Sayblack can be contacted at psayblack@wnct.com