The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Theological Significance

Throughout Disney’s film history, the company has received twenty-six Academy Awards, twelve being for “Best Animated Film.” While most of these animated films have been Pixar, Disney is has been and continues to be widely known for its successful animated features, from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to 2016’s Finding Dory.
Yet within these unforgettable Disney classics lie a number of films that are under the radar and continue to be. One of these films for me was 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I can see why it was not as successful as most of Disney’s animated films during the 90s. However, it still holds a lot of important biblical values. With The Hunchback of Notre Dame having turned twenty on the 21st of June, I found it best to take a deep look at this classic and focus on the theological findings in the area of faith, love, leadership, grace, and judgment. Keep in mind that this article contains spoilers for the film so if you have not watched it, you have been warned.

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Due to his physical appearance, Quasimodo dealt with being unloved by the people of France. However, the female lead, Esmeralda, coped with similar prejudice. During the Medieval time period, Gypsies were greatly frowned upon as they immigrated from parts of Southern Asia into Europe. As seen in the film, they do not have certain privileges or opportunities as the French people.
A song that greatly touched my heart was “God Help the Outcast,” which focused greatly on God helping those who are shunned others, even by those in the church. What was interesting is that she asked God if he was in their situation. “Yes I know I am an outcast, I shouldn’t speak to you. Still I see your face and wonder were you once an outcast too?” Many Christians forget that Jesus was not loved by all. He was driven out of a number of towns, including his own in Nazareth. He was an outcast.
Luke 4:24-30 (ESV): And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.
This is not to say that he did not bring new followers in his teachings and miracles, but one cannot deny that he dealt with prejudice. What I also found very interesting was when a small number of French citizen’s began their prayers during her song. “I ask for wealth, I ask for fame, I ask for glory to shine on my name. I ask for love I can possess. I ask for God and His angels to bless me.” I had to rewind the DVD because I couldn’t believe my ears. Their pleas came off as selfish and prideful. They prayed openly for material wealth and not only did they not pray to bring glory to God, but for God to bring glory to themselves.
Meanwhile, Esmerelda followed with her prayer “I ask for nothing, I can get by. But I know many less lucky than I. Please help my people, the poor and the downtrod. I thought we all were children of God.” Her prayer was not for her but for her friends, family, and those that have been outcasted by the church and Christians within France. I thought to myself, “How sad is it that not only are the characters like this, but how this greatly represents western Christian prayers.” This is not to point out anybody in particular, but it does represent, I believe, a large amount of believers.
Matthew 6:5-8 (ESV): “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

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Judge Frollo is one of Disney’s darkest and creepiest villains of all time. For me, he is number two behind Scar from The Lion King (1994). Yet I found Judge Frollo to be a very interesting villain. He was a very controlling man with a large amount of pride in his faith. As Judge Frollo sings in his villain solo, “Beata Maria, you know I am a righteous man, of my virtue I am justly proud. Beata Maria, you know I’m so much purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.”
As if this was not enough, other characters recognized this hypocrisy inside him as well. During the first number, “Judge Claude Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin and he saw corruption everywhere except within.” Throughout the film this theme carried from the very beginning to his death at the end. Very judgmental, very controlling, very legalistic. When I watched the film, I saw a good amount of the Pharisees in him from the Scriptures. As seen in the New Testament, Pharisees were known to be upholders of the law in a very strict manner and would call out anyone who was not acting accordingly. Despite following the law, they did not realize the damage they were causing by not looking at themselves.
Matthew 12:33-37 (ESV): “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
In the first five through ten minutes of the film Judge Frollo is very similar to the Pharisees as he nearly killed Quasimodo as an infant and refused to take responsibility over the murder of his mother. Despite all this, he still saw himself as righteous before God. Obviously, this is no longer the medieval age, but it makes one wonder as to why Christians greatly symbolize Judge Frollo in their attitudes and behaviors.

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Throughout Quasimodo’s life, he knew nothing more than the bells he rung and the viewpoint over the city of Paris. He knew of his physical appearance and despite being laughed at when humiliated in a parade, Esmerelda saw him as not just a person, but a person with value. His song “Heaven’s Light” focused on this very detail as he sung about knowing nothing about life outside the cathedral until meeting Esmerelda. “No face as hideous as my face was ever meant for heaven’s light. But suddenly an angel has smiled at me And kissed my cheek without a trace of fright. I dare to dream that she might even care for me and as I ring these bells tonight, my cold dark tower seems so bright. I swear it must be Heaven’s light.” For the first time in his life, someone saw him not as a cursed human by God or misshapen, but someone with worth, value, and meaning.
Truly, Jesus himself made many people feel this way as he healed the sick, diseased, and lame. Many people in 1st Century Israel were greatly looked down upon if they possessed some dysfunction and believed that it was due to their sin or parent’s sin. Jesus did not see them this way. Instead, he saw redemption in them as he extended his grace, mercy, and healing upon them. This can be seen when he healed the lepers (Luke 17:11-19), when he healed the lame man at the well (John 5:1-17), and more. They no longer were defined by the title of deformity that man gave them but by Jesus himself as he saw them as children of God.

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Judge Frollo’s solo “Hellfire” is one of the most dark and scary Disney villain solo’s I have heard as it deals with realism in the area of temptation, judgment, and consuming sin. After watching this scene, I could not help but replay it over and over again as it carried such a large amount of theology within it. Judge Frollo battles with the idea if whether or not it was his fault for falling for Esmerelda. “It’s not my fault, I’m not to blame, it was the Gypsy girl, the witch who set this flame.” Because he put himself on such a large pedestal, the idea of being forgiven and given grace was anything but possible. His line, “It’s not my fault if it’s God’s plan that he made the devil so much stronger than a man,” blew my mind. He was so focused on his title in the church and social status that he forgot that God wad the reason he was where he was and that he was called to follow and hold fast to God.
The idea that the Devil is stronger than mankind is one I believe to be true, but if we have God, then we are more stronger than Devil. Judge Frollo’s belief in Catholicism was heavily focused on works, from carrying out the law to resisting temptation. Because he tried to handle his temptation himself, he eventually became consumed by it as he prayed for Mother Mary to give Esmerelda to him or to destroy her if she resisted.
James 1:13-18 (ESV): “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
It is interesting to recognize how far from grace he fell to his lustful desires for Esmerelda until the point of his death. How many of us have been consumed by sin and have fallen away from God for a period of time? How many of us are still lost?

There is a large amount of Biblical themes and theological symbols one can pull out of Disney films, from characters to plots to subtle messages within overall main messages. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is anything but subtle, which makes it all the more interesting and enjoyable to analyze in depth. If you are going to watch the film for its 29th anniversary, I encourage you to take a deep look at the topics discussed and Biblical points that film tackles very well.

Have you seen The Hunchback of Notre Dame? What Christian themes did you notice in it? How can you apply this message to your life?

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Trey Soto

Trey Soto holds a B.A. in Communication Studies from Biola University, emphasis in Interpersonal/Rhetorical Theory. He has been a Film Critic/Analysis for over a year at Geeks Under Grace and other websites such as Temple of Geek. In his spare time, he enjoys comic book literature, screenwriting, production assistant freelancing, photography, cosplay, and hosting his own film podcast T.V. Trey on Podbean and iTunes.

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