Why Is Disney So Afraid of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame?’

in Disney, Entertainment

'Hunchback of Notre Dame' Movie Poster; Quasimodo and Esmeralda on the left and Movie Logo on the right

Credit: Inside the Magic

It’s time to talk about one of Disney’s most beautiful, well-crafted – and darkest – stories. It’s time to talk about The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

More importantly, it’s time to talk about why the Walt Disney Company seems so afraid of a film that they created.

Is the Live-Action’ Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Cancelled?

Composer Alan Menken
Credit: Disney

Related: Halle Bailey Loved Working on Songs With “Living Legend” Alan Menken

In a recent interview about the new live-action Little Mermaid – due in theaters May 26 – legendary Disney composer Alan Menken admitted that he has “no idea” whether the planned live-action The Hunchback of Notre Dame movie is still happening.

It’s a tough one because the Hunchback movie, Hunchback story involves a lot of real, real issues that are important issues and should be explored to be discussed. And there has to be an agreement about how we deal with those issues. You know, do we do a Hunchback without “Hellfire?” I don’t think so…

Disney has a history of waffling over some of the darker themes in Hunchback, particularly the more sexual and religious ones. They made some very conspicuous changes to the source material – the Victor Hugo novel of the same name – when they adapted it for the film: namely, making the lustful villain Claude Frollo a judge rather than a priest, thus avoiding certain implications they might make about the Catholic church.

(Given all of the news that has come out on that front in the 25+ years since its debut, this thematic omission seems especially ironic.)

This conspicuous difference was reverted when a musical version of Hunchback went up at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014 – Frollo was a priest once more, and a lot of other things changed too.

Disney Prevented the ‘Hunchback’ Musical from Moving to Broadway

The cast of The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical at the Argyle Theater
Credit: Playbill

Related: Tony Nominations See Big Box Office Boost, Lack of Broadcast May Not Hurt As Predicted

The reworked musical was initially created in Germany in 1999, and it was Berlin’s longest-running musical, closing in 2002 after three years. Once the English version moved to The Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2015, it was assumed that it would open on Broadway shortly after, as had happened with Newsies and A Bronx Tale.

However, this time was different. Investors indicated from the beginning that they weren’t sure how the show would play; it was much darker than the film version and retained much more of the novel’s original plot – including the ending, where everyone but Captain Phoebus dies.

Disney never gave an official reason as to why the show never made it to Broadway, but most fans are sure that it is because they were afraid of what an ending like that, coupled with all the dark themes and scathing social commentary, would do to their “brand” in New York. They likely feared that unsuspecting audience members would go to see the show expecting a proper “Disney” ending, only to be shocked and horrified by the changes.

The show instead went directly to a regional theatre run, where it was tremendously popular. Most people who have seen the show since have been shocked and dismayed to hear that it was never on Broadway.

Disney Is About To Shoot Themselves in the Foot A Third Time

live action Hunchback
Credit: Disney

Related: Fans Demand Sanctuary For ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Remake

It seems like Disney is again getting cold feet about Quasimodo’s story. The live-action Hunchback of Notre Dame was announced two years ago, with Josh Gad attached as producer, but since then, there have been no updates, save some scant rumors that Chris Evans and Peter Capaldi might be involved – and Menken confirmed last Thursday that it is because the production has been stuck in development hell for the last four years.

Menken was being careful about how he mentioned it in the interview, but it seems apparent that it is the suits above them – not the creative team – who suggested cutting “Hellfire” from the live-action version of the film.

“Hellfire” is one of the emotional legs upon which the entire musical stands, making for the classic villain song that audiences have come to expect from a story like this one. It is an incredibly dark song in which Frollo attempts to reconcile his lustful feelings about Esmerelda, the gypsy (an outdated term used at the time to refer to displaced Romani people), with his burning hatred for “her kind.” You could no sooner cut it out than you could cut out Frollo himself.

Th reason all this interference is happening in the first place is that, despite it grossing nearly as much as Pocahontas the year previous, and opening at the number two spot at the box office, and despite the positive critical reception, The Walt Disney Company has never understood what really drove the audience reaction to The Hunchback of Notre Dame – and they also haven’t gotten over it.

While Christian groups blasted the film as disparaging to their religion – despite Disney’s efforts to the contrary – parents worried that it was far too dark and mature for the children most other Disney films were aimed at. Parents in the UK also protested the film when it was released there.

The problem, however, wasn’t with Hunchback but with how they marketed it.

Actor Jason Alexander was quoted in 1996 as saying, “Disney would have us believe this movie’s like the Ringling Bros., for children of all ages,” but that he would never take his four-year-old to see it.

This was, in truth, a fair criticism, and one that pins down the exact issue that was truly at the heart of this all along. Disney created a wonderful story for older children and adults, and then they gave it a G rating.

The ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Should Never Have Been G-Rated

Esmerelda and Frollo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'
Credit: Disney

Related: New Animators Showing Disney’s Mature Side

What Disney doesn’t seem to realize about the initial reaction to the story that they produced is that it was their own fault. They marketed it to the wrong audience, and instead of paying that price once, they’ve been paying it repeatedly because they are so afraid of how children – who are usually thought of as their primary audience – might react.

Except the thing is, children do not make up all of Disney’s audience anymore – not by a long shot. The children born the year The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out turn 27 years old this year, and history has shown that they have a much larger appetite for Disney’s content than their parents did.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame could have been a hit on Broadway if they had simply attached the appropriate warnings to it, and perhaps imposed an age restriction the same way other mature productions – like Sweeney Todd – always do.

It’s Time For Disney to Trust Quasimodo

1996 quasimodo hunchback of notre dame
Credit: Disney

Related: Josh Gad Reveals Quasimodo Status

Now, the time is right for another try – overzealous religious groups are on the uptick in the United States, as is rampant xenophobia, and discussions about physical and intellectual disabilities. All these things come together in The Hunchback of Notre Dame to create a profound message that might be more important today than when it was first penned.

The Suits at Disney shouldn’t be involved in picking apart and reshaping the story for a live-action Hunchback of Notre Dame. They should trust the creators – like they trusted Howard Ashman when they wanted to cut “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid – and simply worry about how they should market the incredible product they are sure to end up with.

Here’s hoping those holding up production on The Hunchback of Notre Dame come to their senses one day… “Someday” soon.

Would you want to see a live-action version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Let us know in the comments! (Please.)

View Comment (1)