This week Disney, via Deadline, announced plans for a live-action remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, written by David Henry Hwang and featuring music by the original film’s composers, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Josh Gad is also attached as a producer, with some unconfirmed speculation that he may play Quasimodo. This comes as the latest in a long line of remakes and remake announcements, but I must confess that this particular one surprises me.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a complicated film with complex themes. Of course, it’s not quite as heavy as Victor Hugo’s original novel, with the usual Disney-esque changes to story and character and a much happier ending. That being said, it’s still much darker and more intellectual than most Disney movies aspire to be. So far, Disney’s modus operandi with the remakes has been to either focus on beloved classics (Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent) or to re-shape forgotten but harmless Disney movies (Pete’s Dragon). Hunchback doesn’t really fit into either category because it’s a pretty divisive film, drawing both praise and ire for the aforementioned themes, the sexualization of Esmeralda, and criticism of the Church.
Aside from the ludicrous talking gargoyles and a couple of the more upbeat song numbers, there’s surprisingly not a lot for kids in the original movie. Frollo’s villain song “Hellfire” is about his desire to rape Esmeralda, and he outright announces that she can give herself over to him or die. He also tells Phoebus rather nonchalantly of his goals to eradicate Paris’ entire Gypsy population. Esmeralda does have an “I Want” song, per the usual Disney/Broadway formula, but rather than asking for love or fortune, she asks for God to save the marginalized and oppressed people in the world – namely her people. They even make a point of contrasting her humble and selfless prayer with those of the actual Christians in the cathedral, who ask to be blessed, to become wealthy, etc. The film does have some of the usual Disney trappings, like grand musical numbers and the lead feeling like a fish out of water, but (most of) the production is extremely sophisticated, and you can tell the filmmakers were going for a more adult audience. It’s of little surprise that the movie had the same directorial team as Beauty and the Beast; that film is better, but this one has similar themes, shot composition, and use of atmosphere. Honestly, Hunchback is one of my favorite Disney movies. Despite poor creative decisions like the gargoyles (which I personally believe were mandated by the studio, so that the film would have something for kids), I admire the dark tone, and the animation is absolutely breathtaking; everything from the characters’ facial expressions to the Notre Dame cathedral is rendered with passion, and that’s a good way to describe the entire film. Not every choice works, but unlike something like Pocahontas (which attempted similar themes and conflict, but wasn’t willing to go far enough), it provokes strong feelings in the viewer. I’ve never spoken to anyone who didn’t care one way or the other about the film, and that, to me, says that it succeeded.
Still, I think Disney remaking Hunchback is a great idea, at least in theory. As they’ve announced remakes of films like Aladdin and The Lion King, I’ve been flabbergasted as to why they’d risk disappointing fans of such beloved classics; Hunchback isn’t a movie I thought they’d remake, but it is one I’ve been hoping for. If they’re careful, keeping and tossing out the right aspects, this could truly be a great film. Unlike Pinocchio, I don’t consider Hunchback to be a perfect movie. If the new team decides to omit the gargoyles or make them a figment of Quasimodo’s imagination, that in itself would be a huge improvement. I also consider it imperative that they get Frollo as close to Tony Jay’s vocals and Kathy Zielinski’s animation as possible. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that they find an actor who looks exactly like the drawn character, but one who can impress upon the audience the complex morality and ultimate evil within the Judge. Josh Gad could be a good Quasimodo if that is indeed their intent. I loved Tom Hulce’s performance and, along with Tony Goldwyn as Tarzan, he doesn’t get enough recognition for what was surely a challenging role. This is the first time Disney has announced a remake that sounded like a good idea right off the bat; I only hope they’re willing to commit to the concept and maintain the film’s dark themes while trimming unnecessary elements.
What do you think? Is The Hunchback of Notre Dame perfect for the Disney remake machine, or is it just too dark for the audience? Would you rather see more of the classics first? Drop your answer in the comments below!