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.