Who doesn’t love Disney movies? No, I’m not referring to Camp Rock or Hannah Montana: The Movie. I’m talking about the classics. The Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan… come on, you know you’ve seen them all! In the 80s and 90s, there was a sort of Golden Age of Disney. While, obviously, the media giant Disney had come a long way since Steamboat Willie and had produced many timeless classics before the 80s, there was something about the animated features of the 80s and 90s. Maybe it’s because I myself was young in the 90s, so I grew up with these. Maybe it’s because the music is superb. Maybe it’s just because I am a sucker for the Mouse, but I have a soft spot in my heart for those incredible Disney animated films.

Although I know every word to “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “A Whole New World,” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” my favorite Disney movie is, hands down, no questions asked, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It seems strange that, although this piece of animated euphoria came out right in the middle of the Disney animated revolution (1996, to be exact), it is not nearly as well known as some of its counterparts. However, its significance within the broader context of Disney is great. This movie took risks. A lot of them. Seemingly aimed for a young audience, Disney managed to incorporate themes of sexuality, magic, prejudice, and even Christianity.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel of the same name, The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the story of Quasimodo, the lovable, yet ugly and deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame and his cruel master, Judge Claude Frollo. A self-righteous man bent on purging the world of sin, Frollo finds himself lustfully smitten by Esmeralda, a beautiful gypsy, causing a moral conflict between his religious mission and his sexual desire for Esmeralda. The conflict of the divine and the demonic is prevalent, as well as themes of mob mentality and xenophobia.

And it’s by the same people who made Bambi.

Visually, Hunchback is a masterpiece. In true Disney fasion, the animation is stunning. The characters  are lovable, with notable voices by Jason Alexander, Tom Hulce, and Demi Moore. The storyline is dark and enjoyable, even called “Disney’s darkest picture” by London’s “The Daily Mail.” But, by far, the kicker is the music. Everyone loves Disney music. It’s irresistibly catchy, often humorous, and altogether fun. Hunchback is certainly no exception. With songs like “A Guy Like You” and “Topsy Turvy,” audiences stay entertained, but Disney takes it one step beyond in “God Help the Outcasts” and “Heaven’s Light,” by displacing the typical “Bear Necessities” type of Disney music with Catholic Taize and touching lyrics.

The theme song, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” is another gem in this diamond mine of animated goodness. Paul Kandel voices the gypsy jester Clopin, immediately providing the exposition in song and establishing an aura of darkness that sets the mood for the rest of the movie. The intensity in his voice and his dramatic use of pitch inflection against a booming orchestral melody make for a really incredible piece. But, arguably one of, if not the, best Disney song ever made is Frollo’s solo “Hellfire,” seen below. Do yourself a favor and watch it before you read any further.

Wow. I mean, WOW. Talk about intensity. Not to mention the stark contrast between the sweet, touching song “Heaven’s Light,” played just moments earlier in the film. I think that song speaks for itself. Musically, the dark atmosphere grows through tempo change and dynamics. Visually, another stunner. The dancing fire, the red-cloaked figures… Some truly disturbing images augment the already-disturbing words. Lyrically, there are some amazing lines; “Hellfire, dark fire, now, gypsy it’s your turn. Choose me or your pyre. Be mine or you will burn!” Disney took a lot of risks in this movie, but this song takes the cake.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is nothing short of an animated masterpiece. It maintains that classic Disney whimsy, a la Lion King, but it goes much deeper, delving into issues of spirituality, prejudice, sexuality, and mob mentality. It is more than a simple save-the-princess storyline, as we explore the inner psyche of evil, personified in Frollo.

Disney has produced countless family classics, but there has never been a Disney movie I have enjoyed as thoroughly as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. If you have, another time can’t hurt.

(Also, you may have noticed I never mentioned the sequel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. That’s because I’m still trying to convince myself that that abomination was just a figment of my imagination.)

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