Two hundred tormented priests raise their voices in an agony of penitence, timpani pounding and strings ablaze. And always the tolling of the bells, the bells. It sounds more like the Day of Judgement than a Disney soundtrack.
But then The Hunchback of Notre Dame, first released in 1996, was always a difficult concept. The material couldn't quite lose the unhappiness of Hugo's original, despite its modern messages about body image and equality.
The music created even more of a fuss. Scored by Disney veteran Alan Menken (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid) with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the soundtrack had a gothic edge which allegedly terrified kids the first time round. Remastered, it is now re-released to coincide with the launch of Menken's latest Disney score, Home on the Range.
It's worth it. Hunchback is a fully-formed musical, a soundtrack which works without the film. The narrative is strong and characterisation clear.
The music's pretty sophisticated. Opening track "The Bells of Notre Dame" sets the tone: an unholy marriage of the Tridentine Mass and Les Mis. Driven by hysterical choirs and crashing percussion, the Latin liturgy is indeed rather scary. It's most effective in "Hellfire", a histrionic setting for the fantasies of monstrous monk Frollo, sung in deliciously desiccated tones by Broadway veteran Tony Jay.
Alongside the demonic is some nicely hammy comedy. "Topsy Turvy" is a big showtime number with a slapstick MC and a swelling chorus. "A Guy Like You", a song of encouragement by Quasimodo's friends, has some charming lyrics. "You're a surprise / From every angle", they reassure him.
Less likeable are the straight numbers. The sentiments of "God Help The Outcasts", Esmeralda's plea for society's rejected, are spoiled by syrupy production and an overwrought performance from Bette Midler. Ditto Eternal's charmless "Someday."
Still, Hunchback ranks among Disney's best soundtracks, certainly of recent years. Chocka with chutzpah, it has a decent libretto, big numbers and a playful imagination. Just think twice before playing it at your six-year-old's bedtime. --Jack Smith
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