Disney soundtrack albums probably have two very different audiences – the first being the small fry who enjoyed the film and want to hear it all again, and the second being adults who may have enjoyed the film but are looking for something more when they listen to an album. The soundtrack of Hunchback has little to offer the first audience, but then it's one of those animated films that is not really a children-friendly film and indeed may well be over the heads of many. It was a surprising choice for Disney and the uneven result shows the tension between the effort to stay true to the darkness of the original story and the commercial need to squeeze this uncompromising tale into the familiar family-friendly Disney mould. The only surprise is that the source material wasn't as completely submerged as A Little Mermaid was from Andersen's original.
This much is obvious from the dramatic opening theme of The Bells of Notre Dame whose stark simple chords are repeated throughout the film - joyfully and hopefully in Out There (the "Quasi discovers the world" song) and with sinister undertones as the mood darkens in Hellfire later in the film.
The background voices are more choral than is usual for Disney – who normally use a noticeably saccharine sound which for years I've been calling "Disneyfied". This more traditional choir is very effective for demonstrating the voice as instrument and providing a different layer to the sound mix. The one drawback is the soft diction which means that words and therefore impact are sometimes lost. On the points where the diction is clear there is some beautifully ironic counterpoint to the main soliloquy such the choir's repeated "Mea culpa" to Frollo's "It's not my fault".
Having given Frollo (the bad guy) the traditional bass voice in Tony Jay, the unusual decision was made to give Quasimodo a high tenor singing voice. Whilst this nicely undermines expectation, it does lead to a rather weak "I want" song Out There from Tom Hulce, as Quasimodo unsentimentally describes the world his hideous appearance bars him from joining.
Someone who can sing well quietly, is Heidi Mollenhauer singing Esmeralda. Her understated opening builds up to a quiet power in God Help The Outcasts, another song in which the choral counterpoint contrast the pettiness of the burghers' desires with Esmeralda's unselfish prayer.
Beside the Catholic elements of the mass, there are noticeable French motifs throughout the music with Burlesque and cabaret influences in Topsy Turvy and the wonderfully entertaining A Guy Like You. Unusually for a comic song it actually works better without the visuals. Later in The Court of Miracles we are taken back to the high-kicking camp themes of cabaret but this time with an edge of menace. As someone inexperienced in French music I cannot tell how genuine this is. Is it more the American idea of what French music sounds like? An American in medieval Paris perhaps?
I'm not bothered about the background instrumental tracks and I found that there was nothing that stood out. As usual, Disney finish with a mediocre power ballad to cover the end titles, (Someday sung by Eternal). However they redeem themselves with an effectively low-key rendition of God Help The Outcasts sung subtly by Bette Midler, of all people. This ends the album in an unusually quiet and thoughtful mood.
Given the uneven nature of the film, the songs are surprisingly good and well-balanced, making an interesting soundtrack. Sadly the best audience for this album is an intelligent adult one, many of whom will be put off by the Disney label which does not often offer music as considered and sophisticated as this.