Why Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ is More Mature Than You Remember


Walt Disney Pictures released their reimagining of the classic Victor Hugo novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an animated film by the same name in 1996. Development Executive David Stainton brought the idea of capturing the essence of the novel as a film to then-studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1993, and the project was greenlit that same year.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Disney’s most mature project to date. Here, we will talk about some of the themes that are present, and focus on “Hellfire”, the famous Frollo villain song.

The storyline of the film follows the protagonist Quasimodo, an orphan who is adopted by Judge Claude Frollo. Frollo took in the physically disabled infant not out of the kindness of his heart, but due to his perceived judgment by God. Quasimodo grows up in the bell tower of Notre Dame. His only companions are three wise-cracking gargoyles who come to life (it is not explained how in the film, and this can most likely be chalked up to ‘Disney magic’ as it were).

The annual Festival of Fools is the catalyst for the plot to kick off. During the Festival, Quasi meets Esmerelda, a dancer who performs on the streets for money. We then meet Captain Phoebus, home from war and reassigned to Frollo’s guard. He begins the film following orders but soon realizes that Frollo’s attempted genocide of the Romani people is unjust.

If, like me, you were a child when this movie was released, rewatching it as an adult can bring a whole new experience. This was a daring turn to deeper themes and darker source material than had previously been seen from the House of Mouse.

Let’s discuss the themes prevalent in Hunchback and try to figure out why this movie resonated so deeply with children and adults alike.

Part 1: Social Justice and Romance

One of the most obvious themes present in the film is social justice. We see this in the fight of Esmerelda and the other Romani people against Frollo with his position of power. The city thrives on keeping out those different from the white population, subjugating and persecuting them for existing.

This theme also weaves its way through the story of Quasimodo. Quasi is taught by Frollo to believe he is ugly, and that the general populous will never accept him for being “deformed”. During “Out There”, the hold Frollo has over Quasi’s mind is demonstrated by Quasi echoing Frollo’s lines:

Frollo: You are deformed.

Quasi: I am deformed.

Frollo: And you are ugly.

Quasi: And I am ugly.

Frollo: And these are crimes for which the world shows little pity/You do not comprehend.

The fight for social justice is on display in both a macro and a micro sense; the authority of the city of Paris against the Romani, and the authority of Frollo over Quasi. The film undoubtedly puts the oppressed in the right, and in the style of a Disney movie, this can come across simplistically. It is presented that way for the core audience of the film, however, which is children. Nonetheless, even adults can learn from a tale as old as time. The oppressors versus the oppressed, the outcasts versus the majority; the film shows us that it is just as important to stand up for individuals as it is for minority groups.

Another overt theme presented in the film is romance, and how it is viewed differently through the lens of each character.

Quasimodo never speaks of romance until after he meets Esmerelda. She shows him kindness and true empathy, and he is immediately smitten with her. During “A Guy Like You”, Quasi’s gargoyle friends Hugo, Victor, and Laverne try to inspire Quasi to pursue a romance with Esmerelda.

Quasi’s view of what a romantic relationship entails is left ambiguous. He does not actively court Esmerelda, and even after a brief moment of sadness when he sees her kiss Phoebus, he is quick to encourage their relationship. He holds no ill will toward either of them and continues a close friendship with both of them throughout the rest of the film. Quasi’s view of romance is seemingly, then, abstract, and through his pure-hearted character, we are given a wonderful example of how to deal when the person you’re interested in goes on to date someone else.

Esmerelda is never given any screen time to show how she views romance. However, her relationship with Phoebus has a natural progression from distrust to friendship to romance. After he saves her life on more than one occasion, she comes to see him as a trustworthy friend and a great candidate for romance.

Phoebus is shown to be immediately interested in Esmerelda. The film does a wonderful job at showing that he is not only interested in helping her for personal gain. Despite his obvious attraction to her, his sense of justice and doing right by her people comes first. He helps her not to win her over, but because it is the correct and moral thing to do.

The character who is given the most focus when it comes to romance is Frollo. Frollo’s villain song, “Hellfire” is entirely about his desire for Esmerelda. This is not romance, though he may believe it is. It is a profession of need to own her, to control her, and to fuel his own lustful desire for her.

Part 2: Disney’s Best Villain Song

“Hellfire” is arguably the darkest Disney villain song, or song in general, in theme, tone, and musicality. The song is performed by Frollo, as he stands in front of a crackling fireplace. He holds Esmerelda’s scarf throughout and twists it in his hands as he speaks of his desire for her.

The basic premise of the song is that Frollo is bargaining with God. He wants Esmerelda to himself, but he also wants her out of his life because he perceives her as a wicked tool of the Devil. She is only there to tempt him to give in to his most basic desires. She is there to turn him away from his true calling from God, which is to keep Paris pure and clean from her kind. He also cannot deny that he wants her, and wants to control her.

The fireplace in the scene can represent a few things. First, his own inflamed desire for Esmerelda. She appears as a vision to him in the flame, dancing and beckoning him to her. Second, the wrath of God. In many sects of Christianity, Hell is described using fire and similar analogies. Frollo is afraid of the wrath of God if he turns from his path. Third, the ‘heat’ of his situation. He feels a push to act quickly. He must find the Romani hideout and eradicate them.

The scarf he holds that belonged to Esmerelda is another outward representation of the hold she has quickly and completely taken over Frollo’s mind. She is, to Frollo, a delineation of everything wrong in the world. She is from a group he is trying to oppress, she has enchanted the city with her dancing at the Festival of Fools, and she is so beautiful that she has pierced his self-imposed wall, keeping out thoughts of lust and desire to focus on his quest.

The imagery used by the animators in this scene help the themes come through even clearer. The faceless, red-hooded choir that looms over Frollo, the lightning in the scene mostly coming directly from the fireplace, the way the room he is in seems to stretch throughout the song, and the light colors of the scarf juxtaposed with the darkness of the rest of the scene. It all comes together to pack a punch.

In conclusion, The Hunchback of Notre Dame continues to be one of the richest stories Disney has ever put to film. The story is one that explores authority, morality, and justice. If you haven’t sat down to watch this one in a while, it’s a perfect time to revisit Paris and the stories of Quasimodo, Esmerelda, Phoebus, and Frollo.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame Trailer

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