Review Summary: You know, my last feature film was a bit of a disappointment...
Ask any discerning parent in the early 90's what would make for an ideal Disney film and I'm positive they'd all say Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Religious corruption, lust, manipulation, humiliation, unfulfilled love through death; sounds like the perfect recipe for Disney bastardization to me.
Okay, in all seriousness, Hugo's classic isn't one to tackle lightly. Sure, Disney had already messed with children enough times between Pinocchio, The Lion King and even Bambi, but to offer their own take on the dark and depressing 19th century novel was a definite risk. One inevitability would be the scorn enunciated by overly obsessed scholars of Mr. Hugo, but even they'd be the least of the film's more concerned audiences. The film itself was a modest hit, in spite of taking home a Razzie nomination, losing to disaster cliche number 831 AKA Twister (you just can't win them all).
Then there's the soundtrack, which any decent listener will tell you can make a huge difference in a film. It worked wonders for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End over a decade later, why not with a Disney film? Alan Menken of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin took up the task as composer and, if the (good) results are any indication, he really busted his ass away. Take one listen to opener "The Bells of Notre Dame," building from the Latin choir and eventually to the high pitch ending note, and you have some idea of what you're in for.
That is, this is one hell of a ride--as it should be.
Compassion and emotion aren't anything new when it comes to Disney soundtracks, but Menken and company really take it to great lengths throughout the entire soundtrack. If The Lion King is the roar of one timid little cub coming through an adult body, then Hunchback is the torment and compassion of a whole city echoing through the burning halls of a grand cathedral. Menken's genius and prowess truly emit during "Sanctuary!" as it sways through actions, ongoings and even the choir itself. This is the kind of music that would leave everyone involved in Fantasia petrified in sheer disbelief.
But alas, not all here is fine and well, for Disney's old and weary conventions seep through, some times more than others. Perhaps a sung track like "Out There" doesn't quite incite the grandeur of better tracks such as "Hellfire," but even that contributes and fulfills more than, say, " A Guy Like You." I mean, we'd all like to think of ourselves as unique, whether by overly shy tendencies or excess skin in specific areas, but trivial and comical tracks like these hardly do anyone any favors. If it isn't this, then our buddy Clopin has to let his mouth run amidst "The Court of Miracles" and remind us no Disney film is complete without some sort of obnoxious distraction. Shame it had to sneak a path onto the soundtrack like a dirty gypsy.
But there are even points where the soundtrack displays both strength and weakness, just not in a way that reflects positively on our actual experience. Both versions of "God Help the Outcasts" offer a level of mid-road quality that came to be expected after the Disney Renaissance. You're not going to use it to make a case for why the soundtrack is, without a shadow of God's doubt, worthwhile, but your devil's advocate of a friend won't use it to disprove your theory either. The film version seems to limp around a bit while delivering more of that emotional punch needed as we transition to the second act. Meanwhile, Bette Midler's rendition has that credits vibe we all know and love from Disney films. It keeps us sticking around when we'd otherwise abandon the theater like a weekend prostitute. But like that seldom pop song that rises above its peers, said version is a little detached for the sake of thematic relevance, if you will.
Maybe Disney's Hunchback isn't all bells and whistles (pun forcefully intended), but for all the dips and sways, its majesty and highs can't be denied. The story and themes of it aren't anything to cast aside like an everyday, downtrodden slut. But when the music works well, you forgo whatever doesn't. The film might not be everyone's cup of tea, but the soundtrack is a scrumptious helping of coffee with bacon on the side.