To this day I believe that Disney’s surprisingly dark 1996 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is the great unsung gem of the modern Disney animation boom, a film that would find due appreciation as the years go by. But leave it to the Mouse to sully the film’s reputation by churning out a totally unnecessary direct-to-video sequel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame II.”
The original “Hunchback” was one of the most–if not the most–visually stunning of the recent Disney animated features, so it’s especially dismaying to watch the first few frames of “Hunchback II,” which, like all straight-to-tape cheapie Disney sequels, was made at the studio’s television animation crew in Japan. The color palette is remarkably muted, even incorrect at times (gypsy performer Clopin’s clothes are the wrong color; Esmeralda’s skin tone shifts from scene to scene); and the figures and objects lack detail, a critical problem since one of the keys to the story is an ornate new bell at the Notre Dame cathedral. An evil circus leader named Sarousch (voiced by Michæl McKean) wants to steal it, and he enlists his assistant Madellaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt, who also performs the syrupy end title ballad) to get close to it by charming bell ringer Quasimodo (Tom Hulce, returning). Of course, she starts to develop actual feelings for the lovable hunchback, who, having won the love and acceptance of society at the end of the last film, is ready for a little romance.
As can be gleaned, this sequel is strictly standard fare, devoid of any of the qualities that made the first film so special. In addition to the inferior look, the love story lacks the bittersweet complexity of the original’s Quasi-Esmeralda-Phoebus triangle. The latter two (voiced respectively, once again, by Demi Moore and Kevin Kline) are shunted off to the sidelines in this installment, married and saddled with a young son named Zephyr. (Haley Joel Osment voices the moppet, and leave it to the Disney direct-to-video crew to turn this terrific actor into another annoying child star.) Sarousch is also an incredibly dull villain, easily no match for the first film’s deliciously diabolical judge Frollo. Then there’s the matter of the music. Alan Menken’s dense, choral-heavy orchestrations are gone in favor of forgettable, soft-pop melodies accompanied by equally forgettable lyrics. It’s quite a comedown to go from Stephen Schwartz’s poetic, sometimes profound lines such as “It’s not my fault/If in God’s plan/He made the Devil so much/Stronger than a man” to “Hunchback II”‘s “He’s fa la la la fallen in love.”
Disney adapted the original “Hunchback” into an acclaimed and successful (and even darker) stage production in Berlin a few years ago, but it has yet to expand beyond Germany. That Disney has chosen not to go further that project and instead push the crappy yet sure-to-sell “The Hunchback of Notre Dame II” to the masses shows just how much the studio is ruled by the quick, almighty dollar.