Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
At this point, if it hasn’t already become glaringly obvious, Disney’s strategy around its home releases was to simply make the rounds and produce sequels to all of its original properties, regardless of how neatly or nicely the original films wrapped up. There’s no apparent reason to make a sequel to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, not only because it was based on a famous novel but because it also underperformed financially compared to other recent Disney successes. (It grossed over $325 million worldwide, so it wasn’t a total disaster.)
Much like Pocahontas, the film occupies the same strange space of critical achievements that feel lost amid the Disney pantheon. That’s not from a lack of trying on Disney’s part; the studio spent at least $40 million in marketing alone with cross-promotional products, toys and commercials. But when your toys leave a longer-lasting footprint than the film they’re based on, you’re bound for a problem.
What’s going on here?
The Hunchback of Notre Dame II picks up five years after the events of the original film, but it seems to essentially function as a reset for all the characters. At the end of the original, Quasimodo and Esmerelda have fallen in love. When this film opens, Esmerelda is married to Captain Phoebus and they have a son. None of this is remarked upon by anyone whatsoever.
It’s natural that a film set in Paris would be so concerned with love (especially one made by this particular animation studio), but Hunchback II doesn’t bother to give Quasimodo any secondary motivation or interior life. I’m sure I would be as lonely as him if I lived in isolation, although he is notably more public this time around, venturing into the streets and interacting with the public largely without fear. It just sends the wrong signal when the protagonist of your franchise whittles a figurine of someone he barely just met — in this case, Madellaine, a traveling circus performer — because he’s infatuated with her.
It turns out that Madellaine was sent to Notre Dame to do reconnaissance work on a jewel-encrusted bell (more on that in a minute) that the magician / circus leader Sarousch wants to steal. Naturally, Madellaine and Quasimodo proceed to fall in love. She’s torn between her conflicting allegiances, and surely if you’ve seen any Disney films, you know how this will end up.
How much of the original is preserved?
One of the most surprising aspects of this film is the voice cast that Disney was able to ensnare. We’ve covered a handful of films already where the main voice cast returns, but it’s kind of remarkable that so many notable actors appear here, including the new additions. Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Kevin Kline and Jason Alexander all return to respectively reprise their roles as Quasimodo, Esmerelda, Phoebus, and Hugo, respectively. Haley Joel Osment appears as Zephyr, the son of Esmerelda and Phoebus; Michael McKean is Sarousch; and Jennifer Love Hewitt is Madellaine. Most, if not all, of these stars were at the heights of their respective popularities when the film was made in 1997.
Yes, you read that correctly: The film was produced barely a year after the original film was released and didn’t see the light of day until almost five years later. The cause of the delay is unclear, but it helps explain the film’s terrible look. Not since the origin of this series have we seen a film that looks like it was cobbled together by animators working with the bare necessities (no, not those) of animation technology. Lip-syncing is off more often than you’d expect, and the songs are woefully underwritten and forgettable.
Does this ruin the original film?
I can’t say that I remember too many specific details about the original Hunchback or even the experience of seeing it when I was younger. However, I can remember the themes of inclusion and acceptance working well enough. Even when viewing Victor Hugo’s work through Disney’s rose-colored glasses, Quasimodo and Esmerelda are unique protagonists in the Disney canon — outsiders with no ties to royalty who are looked down upon, mocked and even threatened by the people around them. Hunchback II doesn’t touch upon those themes at all, even though Quasimodo and Madellaine share that commonality. Instead, the film recycles the same “conflicted love” plot that Disney has used countless times before.
The most glaring example of this is the bell at the center of it all. Setting aside the plot hole of a magnificent bell not being mentioned or seen throughout the first film — along with the impracticality of putting jewels inside a functioning bell — the metaphor Disney is going for is never not strained. The words “inner beauty” may as well be watermarked on the screen whenever the characters remark upon it.
Disney released Hunchback II to coincide with the first film’s DVD / VHS release, and the strategy can be read as an indication of the studio’s reluctance around the film. Perhaps they could snag a few extra dollars from the public who were around to buy one film already and curious about another. This is the last we’ll see of these characters and, even though I like them and their world and what they represent, I’m grateful to some extent because it doesn’t feel like Disney had anything new to say about them beyond what we’ve been given.
- Next Time: Somehow the film is called 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure, even though 102 Dalmatians already exists.