Amid the news of yesterday’s fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, I found myself among the large group of people who felt profoundly affected by the tragedy, despite not identifying with any religion. Re-watching Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” helped me realize why.
Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, the 1996 animated musical centers on Quasimodo, a young man with a back deformity.
Give it a watch when you get the chance. Everything about it – from the story to the music to the stunning visuals – is a love letter to Notre Dame.
Animators took great care to do the architecture justice, from the famous flying buttresses to the gorgeous stained glass windows. The score, done by Disney legend Alan Menken, is hauntingly beautiful, much like the cathedral itself. And Notre Dame takes on a character of its own in this adaptation. It’s a sanctuary for the persecuted and a refuge for the misunderstood.
My young self walked away from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with an understanding that spirituality was about feeling connected to the rest of the world and treating people with kindness regardless of who they are. The cathedral itself has since served as an iconic reminder.
As a kid, this movie taught me most of my understanding of what religion should be about – love and acceptance. Frollo, Notre Dame’s archdeacon and Quasimodo’s caretaker, suggests his religious devotion is what makes him good. But as the movie continues, it becomes blatantly clear that he uses his involvement with the church to justify mistreating those he looks down upon.
Esmeralda, who has nothing but still looks to help others, is a welcome reminder that kindness costs nothing and means everything.
In what has to be the darkest climax of a Disney movie to date, Frollo attempts to burn Esmeralda, whom he deemed a witch. Quasimodo fights back with fire and Notre Dame is engulfed in flames.
I don’t think I ever thought twice about the scene before, but it was tough this time around not to see the heartbreaking parallel. And there’s the further irony that the character with the biggest moral compass is attacked on the steps of the place that’s supposed to mirror everything she stands for.
Still, Notre Dame survived, as did Quasimodo, Esmeralda and the people of Paris. Amid real-life donations and loving tributes to the cathedral, there’s hope yet that kindness —and Notre Dame itself — can endure.
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