Oh a random whim (because it somehow came up in conversation last night and I don’t remember how) I decided to watch Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Yes, it was a problematic adaptation and a strange story for Disney to turn into an animated feature, but I have always loved it. The hand-drawn animation is still gorgeous. But it is the soundtrack that somehow manages to both lift me up and break my heart at the same time.
From the opening song, where Clopin, the head of the gypsies, gives us Quasimodo’s backstory, I get goosebumps and my chest tightens. When the choir goes from a quiet moan to almost a screech while Frollo dangles the baby over the well, I can’t breath and I get tears in my eyes. The raw EMOTION of that music is just something you never heard before and I don’t think we have heard again in a Disney movie.
And that last note…the one that Clopin (Paul Kandel) hits, I don’t even know what it is but I love that note. It’s crazy high and I can always pick out his voice and hear him going for it and every time (and I know it is a recording so it’s not going to change) but every time I get this feeling of “oh my gosh, is he going to make it? Can he really hit that?” and he just slides right up and holds that beautiful sound. CHILLS.
And then Quasimodo’s “wanting” song, a key moment in every Disney movie, Tom Hulce’s voice sounds so fragile as Quasi carefully runs around the top of the cathedral, looking down at Paris, dreaming and wishing…
Of course, there is the beautiful centerpiece that is Esmerelda’s God Help the Outcasts which is just underrated and it is a crime. First, the animation as she walks through Notre Dame is just stunning. The sequence with the candles and, of course, that final moment in the window’s reflection on the ground.
But it is the lyrics. I can’t even imagine this movie coming out today, I wonder if people were upset with the religious elements. I mean, it’s not attacking religion, but the privileged people that pray for their privilege to increase rather than helping others.
The lyric “I ask for love…I can posses” hits it all home – not just love or to love or be loved, but to turn love into a THING that can be OWNED.
Speaking of lyrics and imagery, I can’t NOT mention Hellfire, another song that I doubt would ever appear in a Disney movie today, with Frollo lusting after Esmerelda, claiming she is sent by the devil, vowing to burn her alive. Yeah, wow, Disney makes KIDS movies, right?
And it’s downright FREAKY! Her outline dancing in the flames, the way he caresses the scarf, the Judges appearing around him chanting “Mea Culpa” and that final scene as the flames envelope him and swirl back into the fireplace. IT IS BEAUTIFUL AND TERRIFYING.
This really was a Broadway production that just happened to get turned into a Disney movie. Searching for the videos, I found several clips from a production that exists now, but when the movie came out, I remember thinking it was the least expensive way to see a Broadway show. The musical production values, the themes, the mature story hiding underneath the Gargoyle’s goofball humor.
A part of me wishes that Disney would see this niche of making Broadway cartoons and return to it. 1997’s Hercules had a fun gospel/pop song style. Mulan felt more like a musical but after that we go into the Tarzan era of pop stars hired to write pop music. Again, I like Phil Collins (I have two ears and a heart, don’t I?) but “Strangers Like Me” is not “Heaven’s Light”. I enjoyed the music from Frozen, but compared to this, it feels watered down. (I haven’t seen Frozen 2 yet, but I’m doubting there are any moments Hellfire dark in there).
Anyway, that was me rambling about a twenty year old cartoon. If you have Disney+, give it a watch, it’s only 90 minutes and it flies by. (Kevin Kline as Phoebus is an extra bonus for me since I’ve had a soft spot for him because of Pirates of Penzance…but that’s another musical story).