‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’: Disney’s most underrated masterpiece

After acquiring a copy of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” during fall break, I was suddenly in the mood to rewatch the Disney animated musical. Doing so made me realize, not for the first time, how criminally underrated this adaptation is. Not only was it not as successful as other Disney films, but it is also significantly inconspicuous compared to the more widely-acclaimed classics. I believe part of the reason may stem from the fact that many of us did not watch it in our childhood, and understandably so — the film’s darker themes might not have been favorable to parents. However, I would argue that “Hunchback” is not so much a movie for children as it is a wonderful work of artistry, and it should be revisited and appreciated today.

To start with, there is the incredible soundtrack, one of Disney’s best. Scored by Alan Menken, awarded for masterworks like “The Little Mermaid”  (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992) and “Pocahontas”  (1995), together with Stephen Schwartz, acclaimed for hits such as “Wicked” (2003), “The Prince of Egypt” (1998) and “Godspell” (1971), the music is glorious and breathtaking. Composed in the style of operatic musicals like “Les Misérables” — also inspired by a Victor Hugo novel — the style does just tribute to Hugo’s hauntingly beautiful work. From the longing “Out There”, the passionate “Heaven’s Light”, the tender “God Help the Outcasts” to the sinister “Hellfire”, the songs leave nothing amiss in terms of riveting melodies or establishment of a thematic, profound atmosphere. Even the post-credits special, “Someday”, captures the fervent thrill of the story, and it is only unfortunate that it was cut out from the movie.

The animation is also gorgeously detailed and picturesque. It is evident that the studio poured hefty amounts of craftsmanship into the work. Indeed, the film accentuated the greatness of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which would, once again, earn a nod of admiration from Victor Hugo. After all, the underlying motivator behind his novel was the depreciation of gothic architecture and the withering of magnificent buildings like Notre Dame. In fact, the work inspired a restoration of the medieval monolith in the mid-nineteenth century.

Then, of course, comes the story. While the film amassed criticism for its inclusion of mature themes for a Disney movie, I would argue that “Hunchback” is considerably more toned-down than Hugo’s heart-rending tragedy. The fact that the movie’s creators were able to make the tale of a, frankly, oftentimes horrifying novel accessible to children — albeit preferably slightly older children — is a major accomplishment in itself. Playful comedic interpolations break the unease of other, more eerie scenes and while the film has been criticized for a disorienting tone, I believe the humor aids in the presentation of such a complex story to a younger audience.

The moral force of the story is unmatched, with themes such as the rampant abuse of power, oppression of the disadvantaged, prejudice and the transformative power of gentleness and kindness. In short, it is a timeless tale, full of character, strength and beauty enough to provoke countless chills.

Nothing proves the unfortunate reception of “Hunchback” better than its stage musical adaptation, which premiered in the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California on Oct. 28, 2014, ran until Dec. 7, 2014, and subsequently went on to open on March 4, 2015, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. As expected, the augmented soundtrack is gorgeous, and I recommend you listen to it on Spotify if you are a fan of show tunes. This rendition featured star actors like Michael Arden and Patrick Page as well as an incredible set. It also retained much of Hugo’s original writing, including the miserable yet impactful ending. However, the show closed all too early on April 5, 2015, after it was announced that it would not move to Broadway.

If you are an animation enthusiast, I hope to have convinced you by now to revive “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and give it the recognition it deserves.

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The views expressed in this Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


FTT’s “Pippin” does remarkably well

“Pippin” revolutionized Broadway at the time of its debut in 1972. With a daring structure and an innovation of metalanguage, the musical won five Tony Awards for telling the tale of Prince Pippin, the heir to the throne of King Charlemagne, which follows a troubled existential journey in search of the meaning of life. Told by a theatrical troupe, the saga is led by a Leading Player and the music of Stephen Schwartz, author of “Godspell” (1971), “Wicked” (2003) and winner of Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe awards. 

A narrative ensemble invites the audience to immerse themselves in the magic of theater and accompany the vicissitudes of Pippin’s turbulent life. In a journey of self discovery, he faces battles, experiences power, simplicity and love.

It is a musical with a lot more substance and layers than one might originally assume. “Pippin” is a cynical comedy that features an absolutely modern protagonist, full of doubts and questions and with an existential void that can never be fulfilled. So much so, it has been dubbed the “Hamlet” of musicals. He rejects old cliches and breaks with some traditions of the genre. As if that were not enough, it takes up the idea of ​​the “theater of life within the theater of stage” and invites a theatrical group and the figure of the Leading Player to tell the story.

When I first saw this musical in high school, I must admit I did not love it as equally, as I had grown rapidly passionate about other musicals I encountered. The meta aspect of “Pippin” was its most creative and interesting development, and the ending related a sincere and profound moral. However, if I would have only reviewed my experience of the musical then, I would rate “Pippin” a moderate  3 out of 5 shamrocks. There were moments when I felt the story was dragging, and the writers inserted reflective songs without much narrative development to compensate. The jokes grew overused and crude, distracting from the uneventful plot.

I am glad, however, that Notre Dame students managed to make my second experience of the show considerably more enjoyable. Directed by senior Nick Buranicz, the department of Film, Television and Theatre developed a youthful and animating production. Although I had originally taken a more moderate liking of the play, Notre Dame’s “Pippin” earned 5 out of 5 shamrocks.

The actors were comical and idiosyncratic without being overbearing — except, of course, for the one character who is meant to be domineering, the brilliant and hilarious Charlemagne (Timothy Merkle). Pippin himself (Carlos Macias) perfectly captured the bright-eyed naivety of the character. His sweet and mellow rendition of “Corner of the Sky” was moving and ideal. Both the Leading Player (Evelyn Berry) and Fastrada (Olivia Seymour) superbly capture their characters’ scheming wiliness and oustanding charm. Grandma Berthe (Gavriella Aviva Lund) was especially vibrant as she led the audience through the chorus of “No Time at All,” and Catherine (Kate Turner) taught the audience the value of simple pleasures with her agreeable disposition. That is to say nothing of the fantastic vocals and each actor’s ingenious doubling as a member of the ensemble.

The scenes balanced the humor and philosophical weight of the show. Despite its great comedic moments, this version of “Pippin” seemed less rough and more principled. The cast of “Pippin” gave the ending its proper meaning, which is, of course, memorable for its rejection of the desire for extraordinary pyrotechnics in life and the exaltation of the menial and familiar. 

Choreography was marvelously executed, with much color and vivacity. Further, the set was also innovative, using gymnastics mats to construct each fluid scene. The rapidness and large-scale transitions with these mats were nothing short of impressive. Finally, the costumes were well-suited, given the unique and lively nature of the show.

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