– By Sam Hendrian –
This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback Series
“I ask for nothing/I can get by/But I know so many/Less lucky than I”
-Esmeralda, “God Help the Outcasts”
This haunting prayer uttered by the gypsy Esmeralda partway through Disney’s animated classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame succinctly captures the beautifully complex, challenging themes of the film. Based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo, it is arguably Disney’s darkest but also most profoundly spiritual work of art, commenting boldly on the dangers of spiritual blindness and the sanctity of every human life.
Homicide and near-infanticide—typical ways to start a Disney movie, right? This is exactly how The Hunchback of Notre Dame begins. The corrupt minister of justice Claude Frollo chases a gypsy woman who is carrying a physically-deformed baby in her arms and immigrating to Paris illegally. Frollo yanks the infant out of her hands, causing her to fall on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral and crack her skull. He then prepares to hurl the baby into a water-well, but a horrified deacon runs out of the cathedral and stops him, warning him of Heaven’s ever-watching eyes. Suddenly scared for his soul, Frollo promises to raise the infant boy as penance for his grave sin. This act of penance is an undeniably reluctant one, as is shown by the derogatory name he immediately gives the boy: Quasimodo, meaning “half-formed.”
Frollo keeps Quasimodo hidden in the bell tower of the cathedral throughout his whole youth, claiming that it is to “protect him” from the public. He sings, “You are deformed/And you are ugly/And these are crimes for which the world has little pity.” Innocent Quasimodo listens to his master and stays within the confines of the bell tower, accepting that he is ugly but still dreaming of living among the people “out there.” As he observes the villagers down below, he poignantly observes, “Every day they shout and scold and go about their lives/Heedless of the gift it is to be them.”
As his dream gradually overpowers his loyalty to his master, Quasimodo sneaks out of the bell tower one day to experience the Festival of Fools, an annual event that encourages decadence and all sorts of foolish activities abhorred by the self-righteous Frollo. While at the festival, Quasimodo is publicly ridiculed for his appearance, which Frollo sadistically allows, saying that “a lesson needs to be learned.” The noble-hearted gypsy Esmeralda intervenes and angrily puts an end to Quasimodo’s humiliation, horrified by the inhumanity of her fellow humans.
A further-detailed synopsis would ruin the viewing experience for those who have not seen the film or at least have not seen it in a long time, but suffice it to say that the rest of the plot involves moments of both unexpected compassion and horrific treachery. In my favorite scene of the film, Esmeralda walks through the halls of Notre Dame Cathedral and melodically prays a humble prayer for those less fortunate than her that is juxtaposed with the self-righteous prayers of everybody else in the church. It is a profoundly challenging and spiritually-stirring moment, especially considering that the Walt Disney Company has a long-standing tradition of avoiding overt religious references in their films.
Frollo is the darkest but also the most compelling character in the film, as he represents the monster of blinding pride and self-righteousness that we all have hiding somewhere in the caves of our complex souls. He actually believes that he is serving God by persecuting the “filthy” gypsies and giving Quasimodo a low sense of self-esteem. While we may not be spiritually delusional to the same level as Frollo, we all have moments when we refuse to accept that we might be wrong about something, severely endangering our ability to love/empathize with others. Frollo’s descent into downright evil and his ultimate death serve as a warning to put a leash on pride before it does irreparable damage to our compassion.
On a lighter note, The Hunchback of Notre Dame also paints a transcendent portrait of the sanctity of every human life. In the final scene of the film after Frollo’s death, Quasimodo is led out into a crowd of people by Esmeralda. At first, they just stare at him with fear and hesitation in their eyes, perhaps prepared to ridicule him again. But then a kind-eyed young child slowly steps forward and gentle puts her arms around his neck, silently and boldly telling the rest of the villagers that they must love and accept Quasimodo as the precious human being he is. It is a brief but tear-jerking moment that symbolizes the universal plea for acceptance and understanding that can be found beneath every pair of enigmatic human eyes.
The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast may be held in higher esteem by critics and audiences, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame is arguably a richer work of art. It subtly touches our hearts and probes our souls in ways no other Disney film has, and its message is perhaps the most relevant and profound of the powerhouse studio’s animated stories. As Esmeralda sings, we are all children of God; let us then treat every person we encounter as a dearly beloved sister or brother.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
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