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20 Weeks of Disney Animation: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my all-time favorite Disney animated film. That’s not to say it is the best; from a purely critical standpoint, there are a few problems to be found. However, for me, Hunchback represents all of what Disney does best and then raises the bar even further. It features a cast of memorable characters, beautiful music, and breathtaking animation. Even though Disney animation was at its peak in the 1990s, this film continued to challenge what an animated movie was expected to be and pushed boundaries even further. Due to its dark tone and serious subject matter, Hunchback is a film that is often overlooked among other crowdpleasers such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

Read: 20 Weeks of Disney Animation: ‘Pocahontas’

This isn’t surprising. Most Disney movies are a form of escapism. In fact, it is largely what the whole Disney brand stands for. We go to a Disney theme park or turn on a Disney movie, and that familiar “Disney magic” makes us forget all about the tragedies and sadness of the real world. This is incredibly attractive and necessary at times, which is why millions of people flock to Disney experiences and products every year. Despite this, Hunchback does not follow in these footsteps. This deviation from the Disney brand is both refreshing and also necessary.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, writer of Les Miserables. Those familiar with Les Miserables will likely see the parallels between these two tales, including themes of freedom, persecution, and religion. The character of Claude Frollo is one of the most, if not the most, complex villains in the Disney animated canon. Like Javert from Les Miserables, he believes that he is completely justified in the decisions he makes, despite their violent and unforgiving nature. Many of his scenes, such as the infamous song “Hellfire”, are uncomfortable to watch.

On the subject of songs, one of my other favorite things about Hunchback is the music. Fresh off of Pocahontas, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz have written a beautiful, rich collection of songs that blend so well with the animation. The opening number gives me goosebumps every time. Other songs like “God Help the Outcasts” and “Out There” are equally powerful.

A common complaint of this movie is the three gargoyles and the comedic relief that comes with those characters. I understand this argument, but also realize that this is a Disney movie and, at the end of the day, it has to appeal to kids, sometimes at the expense of adults.

My strong appreciation for this film could be somewhat be because I did not watch it until I was an adult. Had I watched it first as a kid, I doubt it would have had the same impact.

Live-action remake: Though no live-action remake has been officially announced by Disney, there have been talks about a potential project for the past couple of years. It seems that Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz would return to work on the music, while the script reportedly will be written by Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. Josh Gad would produce the project, and possibly star as Quasimodo as well. It is unknown if 2019’s fire at Notre Dame cathedral has altered their plans for this film.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the theme parks: Though Hunchback is rarely displayed in the theme parks, there was a a parade called The Hunchback of Notre Dame Topsy Turvy Cavalcade from 1996-1997 in celebration of the films release. There was also a musical version that was performed at the parks at one time, a Clopin-themed restaurant in Disneyland Paris, and characters have been known to make rare appearances from time to time.

Sequel: Following the financial success of other straight-to-video Disney sequels, it was decided that The Hunchback of Notre Dame II would be a necessary outing and was released on video in March of 2002. Unfortunately, it is a terrible movie. To read a more detailed discussion of this and other sequels, check out my 25 Weeks of DisneyToon Sequels.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame on stage: In 1999, a German-language stage production based on Disney’s film opened in Berlin. For many years, this was the only stage adaptation with the Alan Menken score, despite it never being performed in English.

Finally, in 2014, an English-language production of the musical, with new songs written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. The production then moved to the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and soon after, a studio album was recorded with this cast. In this stage adaptation, they chose to make the character Quasimodo deaf. A later production of Hunchback at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle featured not only a deaf actor in the role of Quasimodo, but also the use of ASL by him and the hearing actors.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is available for streaming on Disney+.

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