Just as people tend to underrate Disney’s Pocahontas, they tend to overrate the Disney Hunchback of Notre Dame film, despite its spectacularly bad choice of source material. In particular, people of the generation that grew up watching these films often make a huge deal about Pocahontas‘ license when it comes to historical details, but make surprisingly little fuss about the latter film’s outright desecration of a great work of literature. And while this stage version fixes pretty much every problem with it, that arguably just highlights how badly the movie mismanaged its material.
For the record, I get that the film has a lot of compensations for its problems. Even if you think that making Quasimodo into the cuddly little mascot he is here is cheating the premise, there’s no denying that the animation is absolutely gorgeous. The voice cast, including Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Kevin Kline and Tony Jay, is one of the best ever assembled for a Disney film. And apart from a few out-of-place comedy numbers, like the too-silly “Topsy-Turvy” and “The Court of Miracles” and the painful “A Guy Like You”, the songs are glorious, arguably the finest music Alan Menken ever wrote for a Disney movie.
It’s also far more ambitious than your typical Disney fare, even including an actual prayer, “God Help the Outcasts”. “The Bells of Notre Dame”, perhaps Disney’s most striking opening, is ominous, sweeping, and epic, with its thunderous choir vocals and haunting minor-key melody. “Out There” is arguably Alan Menken’s most soaring Wanting Song ever. And then there’s the number everyone remembers, the terrifying (and surprisingly explicit and sacrilegious for a Disney movie) “Hellfire”, which you could make a serious case is Disney’s single greatest villain song.
The stage version builds on this music, adding several more gems such as the lilting “Top of the World”, the rhapsodic “In a Place of Miracles”, and the heartbreaking “Made of Stone”. It also salvages the cut song used as the film’s credits theme, “Someday”, turning it into one of the show’s key numbers. In addition, it purifies the tone of the comedy numbers, replacing “A Guy Like You” with the far more serious and ambitious “Flight Into Egypt” and giving “Topsy-Turvy” and “The Court of Miracles” an undertone of menace that they lacked in the original film.
But where the stage show really improves the work is in the story. Even if you ignore the issues with the source material, the fact remains that the film’s script is a complete disaster. The tone shifts wildly between kid-friendly humor and blood-and-thunder melodrama, all the attempts at humor are appalling, and none of the characters are as interesting as they should be. The stage show does keep the overall plot structure of the movie and retains some of its changes to the novel, such as making Phoebus a truly heroic figure rather than the irredeemable monster he was in the novel. But it also reinstates the original tragic ending, makes Quasimodo much more like the mentally disabled wreck of the novel than the fairly-normal-apart-from-his-appearance everyman of the film, and restores Frollo’s original motivations.
People who grew up on the movie seem to be carried away with its portrayal of Frollo, probably because he’s a much more graphic and brutal villain than you see in most Disney movies. But here’s the thing: the Frollo of the movie is still a cartoon villain, and even if he’s more Simon Legree than Snidely Whiplash, Legree wasn’t exactly a well-written or three-dimensional character either. Just because he resembles the villain of an adult potboiler melodrama rather than a typical children’s movie does not make him the revelation most of the movie’s fans seem to perceive him as being. But the Frollo of the novel was essentially a French Macbeth, a genuinely good man corrupted by an obsession into a monster, and the musical restores this portrayal. While he does do horrible things and ultimately deserves his eventual fate, he remains somewhat sympathetic and extremely complex. His epic villain song, “Hellfire”, thus takes on a new dimension here, becoming not only terrifying but also tragic, now that it’s being given to a character with the capacity for real guilt.
Also, in the film, the fantasy element of the three talking Gargoyles who supply the comic relief would be out of place even if the writing for them wasn’t so blatantly idiotic, and the half-hearted attempts to ‘suggest’ that they might be merely figments of Quasimodo’s imagination aren’t done consistently enough to actually convince us of that fact for a second. In the stage version, instead of three cutesy comedy-relief mascots, all the statues in Notre Dame talk to Quasimodo, and it’s made abundantly clear that they’re really only the voices in his head.
What ultimately did the Disney film in was that its source material simply did not work as a Disney movie no matter how much talent and effort was poured into it. It’s too dark and nightmarish to be an effective kids’ movie, but still too saccharine and neutered to be anything more than an insult to the classic novel on which it is based. But the musical version of Les Miserables (and for that matter, Verdi’s Rigoletto) had already proved that Hugo’s work was extremely well-suited to the serious musical stage. If the movie is basically the Heaven’s Gate of animated movies, a bad movie with spectacularly great production values, the stage musical makes it clear that the team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz had a wonderful musical version of this material in them that was simply being stifled by the restrictions of their initial format.
While the film is nowhere near the masterpiece most internet critics would have you believe, this stage version is easily one of the finest musicals of the current decade. I imagine the only reason it hasn’t been brought to Broadway yet is that there’s really no way to prevent stupid people who grew up with the film from taking their kids to it, and this is most certainly not an appropriate show for kids. Hopefully they can overcome this problem and let the show play the high-profile venues it deserves, but the fact that half the population now thinks of Hugo’s story primarily as a kids’ movie might be enough to limit this show to cult success long-term, and I can’t think of anything more shameful.