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Hunchback playset

McFarlane's Monsters
by yo go re

And so, only a brief 20 years after they were released, we finally review the last of the McFarlane's Monsters playsets.

If you've only seen Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, then... well, actually, you have a really good grasp on the real version. Other than the talking gargoyles (and the low kill-count), Disney stuck surprisingly close to the source material. Well, to the plot, anyway: the plot of the novel and the point of the novel were two entirely different things.

Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame not because he had a story to tell, but because he wanted to extoll the virtues and importance of Gothic architecture, so people would stop tearing it down and replcing it with "modern" (by 19th-century standards) buildings. Basically, he was an anti-gentrifcation activist and was using his novel to sell his ideas to the widest audience possible. In fact, the novel's original French title, Notre-Dame de Paris, makes it clear that the church itself is the most important character, and the book is filled with sweeping, intricate descriptions of the building's construction and appearance.

This playset features a bit of bell tower, which is exactly what you'd expect. There's a stone floor, archways with columns at the corners, a bell, and a wooden platform on top. The set is rectangular, and while the short sides have "Notre Dame" sculpted along the top edge, the long sides get "Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris." "Of"? Why "of"? Shouldn't it be another "de"? What stonemason would make this mix of English and French?

The set includes a bell, of course, because having a Hunchback of Notre Dame set without a bell would be like having a Phantom of the Opera set without a chandelier. The bell is painted a nice bronze color, with a bit of hand-applied weathering. The name "Notre Dame" is molded on both sides, and there are ropes sculpted holding the bell to a wooden beam. The clapper inside the bell hangs freely, meaning that you can actually "ring" it if you want (though the sound is, obviously, going to be rather flat and asonorous, since it's made of plastic and not metal - it really does soung more like clapping than ringing).

The four columns each have their own unique sculpts, and differently shaped pegs to plug them into the base. The tabs that connect them to the cap on top are brittle, and break easily - I didn't buy this set when it came out, instead picking it up loose just a few years ago at a local sale; turned out the bag included pieces from at least two Hunchback sets, and one set of columns had all their tabs snapped off, stuck inside the roof rim. So if you're going to get this, be aware of that problem when you're taking it apart again. Also, there are two versions: one with light gray "stone," the other darker.

Above that are two rough stone slopes supporting the wooden platform. A hook is sunken into the wood for you to hang the bell, and there's a hole in one of the pieces that you can feed the rope through, for real bell-ringing action! That's not an exaggeration: you can pull the rop and the bell will swing back and forth, and will ring if you pull it hard enough.

As I said, I bought this as part of a loose set, so I didn't actually get all the pieces. There's a play feature here, a spring-loaded catapult basket. At first I couldn't figure out what it as for, but it turns out the set originally came with a small gargoyle that could either perch on the building or be flung across the room. I guess whoever owned this before me lost their gargoyle behind the couch or something.

Before books had titles, published works were often known by an "incipit," the first few words of their text - for instance, that big dull book about whale hunting could be known as "Call me Ishmael." Make sense? This process is still in use for untitled works, such as the Gregorian chants that serve as the introit to many Christian services. Traditionally, the introit used on the first Sunday after Easter is based on 1 Peter 2:2 - "like a newborn craves milk, so you should crave the teachings of God." Or in Latin, "quasi modo geniti infantes..." blah blah blah. Since that introit is used every time, its incipit has come to identify the day itself, and thus the Octave of Easter is known as "Quasimodo Sunday." It's also the day a deformed, hunchbacked baby was found abandonned at Notre Dame Cathedral, and that's the name the archdeacon who found the baby gave him.

The Hunchback figure looks every bit as good as you'd expect from late-mid-'90s McFarlane. He's waering tattered rags that have been stitched and patched many times over the years. His feet are wrapped in dirty cloth, and while his left hand is normal, his right is as deformed as his face. His mouth is pushed off toward the side of his jaw, he has no nose to speak of, and both eyes are set in deep, black sockets. A single tuft of hair sprouts from the loose, dangling skin of his scalp. The figure only has swivel joints (neck, shoulders, wrists, waist, and hips), but his bent, crooked posture is perfect.

All the Monsters playsets come with two figures, so the Hunchback isn't alone. If you know the story, you can probably think of several likely candidates to pair with him, yes? Frollo, the corrupt priest? Phoebus, the soldier? Esmeralda, the sexy sexy gypsy girl? Can't you just imagine the awesome things Eric Treadaway and Cornboy could have done with any of them? Well, you'll have to "imagine" it, because Quasimodo's enemy here is a generic executioner.

He wears a full black suit, with spiked metal toes on his boots. The shirt is a rougher material than the pants and mask, and he wears a wide, studded belt with a strap running over his left shoulder. There are metal plates on both forearms, and his eyes are red. The studs on his belt get silver paint apps, but only on the front of the figure - the back is just black. He moves at the neck, shoulders, waist, and right wrist, but not the left. He's armed with a massive two-headed axe, splattered with blood on one side. The handle is very soft plastic, and gets warped easily. Which is good, since there's no way to get both his hands in alignment to hold it.

The Monsters playsets were a bold step for McFarlane Toys, back when they still did such things. The scale may have been gambling on the resurgant popularity of Star Wars toys, but the dioramas were a ton of fun and completely unlike anything anyone was doing at the time. Or since, really.

-- 10/22/17

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