The film begins in darkness and silence. A faint Latin chorus becomes audible as the title cards roll. Joining the ambient chanting voices is the deep, resonant knell of a church bell, followed by the rising clamor of more and more bells, rising into a crescendo. Then, with the slam of a bass drum, we see the first shot of the movie: Notre Dame Cathedral shrouded in misty clouds. The choir’s voices swell in intensity as the camera swoops down through the clouds and into the cobbled streets of Paris.
The opening sequence of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale) is goosebump-inducing and gives the audience a taste of the overall feel of this movie. To employ an overused word, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is epic. It boldly utilizes heartfelt ballads, dizzying camera angles, and grand, imposing visuals to great effect.
The serious themes that this film addresses make for some of the most powerful, sophisticated scenes, songs, and characters in a Disney film. Our protagonist, Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), is a victim of prejudice who spends his days in the bell tower of Notre Dame, cloistered away for his deformed appearance. His burning desire to live among “normal” people inspires the moving song “Out There,” a heart-wrenching musical portrait of hopeful longing, figuratively painted on the gorgeous canvas that is the soaring cathedral.
Quasimodo’s thirst for a world beyond the bell tower leads to an encounter with the kind, beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore), who soon captures the heart of not only Quasimodo, but the heart of a more sinister character as well. A good deal of the film’s drama stems from how two characters - one pure and lowly, one twisted and haughty - respond to and act on the same emotional stimulus.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame sports one of the most evil Disney villains to date: Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay). What makes Frollo truly terrifying as an antagonist is that he pursues evil not for the sake of being evil, but because he fervently believes he is acting under God’s authority. It is when sinful thoughts enter his mind that he panics and seeks to rid himself of the source of his sin, the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda. It is this internal struggle that prompts one of the best Disney villain songs of all time: “Hellfire.”