The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996) The Darkest Disney Film?

In my opinion this is easily the darkest film that Disney has ever made. Judge Frollo is surely the most evil and complex villain ever seen in any Disney film. Sure, there have certainly been many other scary Disney villains throughout the years, but unlike so many of them, Frollo seems more real. For me he is therefore much scarier because of his realistic qualities. While we will never encounter the Queen/Witch from Snow White, we will sadly all come across plenty of people like Frollo in real life.

The film contains murder, race hatred, lust, religious hypocrisy, and the ridicule and torment of a disfigured and disabled man. All of this in an animated family film. The film is based upon Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel of the same name. The film is quite different to the novel. The novel is even more depressing and dark and Frollo interestingly doesn’t start out as a villain, but he gradually becomes one as the story goes on. 


Frollo threatens Esmeralda. Screenshot by me.

I think I was around ten years old when I first saw this film. Even at that age I picked up on the fact that this was as far from your typical Disney flick as it was possible to get.

Disney had gone dark and tackled some difficult issues before of course – the transformation into a donkey in Pinocchio; emotional abuse and cruelty in Cinderella; making children aware of death and loss in Bambi; scaring us all silly with the old hag in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, racism and blood lust in Pocahontas;the murder of the father in The Lion King. Despite all that had come before, Disney had never put anything quite like this film on the screen before.    

Although it is a dark film, I really enjoy the film because it has several strong and likeable characters. I love the strong, kind and feisty Esmeralda. I love the gentle Quasimodo, who despite enduring cruelty every day, remains a very kind and decent person. I love the funny gargoyles who were the only friends to Quasimodo(although in reality of course he is talking to inanimate objects and believing them to speak back because he is so lonely). I love the handsome and courageous Captain Phoebus who becomes a friend to both Esmeralda and Quasimodo.  

I loathe Judge Frollo. I didn’t pick up on just how twisted Frollo was though until I watched the film again when I was much older. I was floored at just how dark and messed up this guy actually is. Let me tell you a few things about Frollo. This man murders a Gyspy woman on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral, he then takes her baby from her arms. When he sees that the baby is disfigured, he attempts to kill it by dropping it in a well. He is stopped from doing this by the Arch Deacon of the Cathedral, who tells him he must now claim the child as his own and raise him. Frollo does this. He locks the boy away in the bell tower, and fills his head with nonsense about how Gypsies are evil people. He also tells him lies about his own mother. 

Frollo then falls for the beautiful Esmeralda. He loves her and he loathes her. She is a Gypsy, and therefore she is one of the people he loathes with a passion and has made it his mission in life to destroy. He can’t accept the fact that he has some genuine feelings for her, so he twists his feelings and makes them out to be something impure.


Frollo ties Esmeralda to the stake. Screenshot by me.

Wait, it gets much worse! He then blames Esmeralda for the fact that he desires her! Yes, you read that right, it’s apparently her fault that he feels something for her. He then decides that if she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings and come to him to be his woman, he will burn her to death at the stake! Hey, Frollo. The hospital just called, there’s a padded room there with your name on the door, dude.   

Frollo gets the best remembered song from the film, a catchy little number called Hellfire. In this song he goes on about how he is a religious and devout man, and how Esmeralda is a temptress sent to torment him from hell. After singing this Frollo goes on a killing spree across Paris in order to find Esmeralda.   

Frollo is voiced superbly by the great Tony Jay. Jay’s vocal skills are at their very best in this film and he really nails this character. Frollo is a cold, cunning, and very manipulative man. He is also a huge religious hypocrite, having committed murder multiple times, yet he goes around claiming to be a good religious man. He also treats people with cruelty and contempt, instead of with the compassion and equality they all deserve.   

Yet Frollo would have you believe (and he believes it himself)that he is an upstanding religious man who is actually doing the right thing. I’d say this belief he has is what makes him so dangerous and deranged because he cannot see that he is actually anything but a decent and righteous man. Complex and scary character? Without a doubt he certainly is. There are sadly so many people out there in real life who are just like Frollo. 

Demi Moore delivers a fine vocal performance as Esmeralda. She conveys the kind and gentle nature of this woman. The animators also did a good job of giving Esmeralda some of Demi’s facial features. I love Esmeralda singing God Help The Outcasts while she prays to the Virgin Mary. This sequence is so moving and beautiful.  

I also like the prayer sequence because in it Esmeralda is shown to be such a selfless character. She prays not for herself, but instead for the safety and freedom of her people. We see other people praying for rather selfish reasons (asking for beauty and wealth etc)and she instead asks for help for equality. This is one of the most touching and perfectly constructed sequences in any Disney film. People out there who treat certain people badly should pay attention to these words of the song ” I thought we all were the children of God.” These words serve as a reminder that we should all be treated equally and receive compassion.  

Esmeralda is my favourite female Disney character. She is independent, strong, kind hearted, warm, fun, resourceful and so compassionate and tender. I love how she befriends Quasimodo and sees the man behind the physical which scares many people. I only regret that she was put together romantically with Phoebus instead of with Quasimodo. 


The gentle Quasimodo. Screenshot by me.

Quasimodo is the hero and heart of the film. Tom Hulce does such a good job of portraying this characters pureness, innocence, longing, apprehension and sadness.

It’s sadly rare for films to have a disabled or disfigured person as their lead character, and in this film Quasimodo is one such person.

He finds an inner strength and courage to enable him to do the right thing nearer the end of the film. He also never loses his kindness and sweetness, despite having been treated so badly by many people for so long.

Quasimodo comes to love Esmeralda, and it really annoys me so much that the makers of this film couldn’t have been braver and had them get together at the end. This would have helped show that disabled and disfigured people can love and be in relationships just like anyone else can. 

Kevin Kline does a good job as the brave and charming Phoebus. Kline conveys that this man starts out on Frollo’s side and then gets his eyes opened to the truth about the monster he serves. He risks his life to save the woman he loves and also the innocent man he has befriended. 

This film bravely included and tackled some difficult and complex themes and issues. I have yet to see another film from this studio that is quite like this was. The vocal performances are all excellent, and there are so many unforgettable characters and songs to enjoy.  

Children will enjoy it for its humorous moments, for its positive messages of treating people equally and kindly, and for good fighting and triumphing over evil. Adults will pick up on the darker aspects of the story and read more into certain characters and scenes. This film has something for everyone. The animation is also beautiful. Watching this again recently has made me really miss this old style Disney animation. 

The film is also notable for featuring the final performance of the actress Mary Wickes. She voices one of the gargoyles who befriends Quasimodo. 

I’d love to hear your opinion of this film. Is this the darkest Disney film out there? 

16 thoughts on “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996) The Darkest Disney Film?

      1. Movie Movie Blog Blog

        Thanks. I took my then-3-year-old daughter to see this movie when it first came out. She watched it again about 15 years later, and like you, she was surprised at what she hadn’t picked up on in the first viewing. (For my part, I remember seeing the first 10 minutes of the movie and thinking, “They’re really not screwing around this time!”)

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Wolfman's Cult Film Club

    The Black Hole is one contender but when you see Frollo sing the Hell Fire song you realise this is one twisted mo-fo.
    Animation Damnation! Still it’s a brilliant adaptation and watched it many times with the kids!. Fingers crossed it hasn’t messed them up too much!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Wolfman's Cult Film Club

        Hehe yeah they fine thanks. You do get a cute Quasimodo, oh wait a minute he’s bullied and persecuted! I guess Esmeralda will lighten the mood, oh she’s lusted after and stalked!
        Yeah it should be a PG. I guess it hits the true picture of the dark times. TBH kids do like a scary story but this does push it right to the limit. I do very much like it though. 🙂


  2. dbmoviesblog

    I agree with you that this animation is one of the darkest of Disney’s. Even though they made the ending kids’ friendly, there is just something in the theme as a whole dark and child-unfriendly.
    I am not a big fan of this Disney animation, and part of the reason is that they made the character Frollo, as you say, dangerous, psychopathic and scary. Of course, they could not help it – they must have had their villain, but still I find this aspect very problematic. You will be shocked to know that in the book by Hugo, Frollo is almost my favourite character. This is because of his complexity and mysteriousness. Yes, he does unspeakable things in the second half of the novel, but at first he was “an innocent student”, ” a protector of a little child”, “the young dreamy philosopher”. It is interesting to see how he became disillusioned with life around him and then to see him battle his passions against his duty as a priest. In the novel, you almost admire his pursuit of science and knowledge and also his love for the cathedral. He almost reminds me of Severus Snape in Harry Potter. He looks austere and solemn, but somewhere there there was goodness once which could do so much for people around him. A very thought-provoking character indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. maddylovesherclassicfilms Post author

      I like how you see similarities in the book Frollo and in Snape. I hadn’t made that connection before, but you are right that they are similar.

      Well, I get why some people don’t like this one. I think that this film helps to show children that there are dark and disturbed individuals in the world that they should beware of. If we pretend to kids that people like Frollo don’t exist we’re not doing them any favours. I also think that there is such a positive message of love, equality and good overcoming evil in this film which makes up for the darkness and scary parts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike

    It’s one I haven’t seen (stopped bothering after the heights of THE LION KING and felt the production values went steadily downhill after that), but you make it sound worth a watch. I’m perhaps with the comment above that highlighted THE BLACK HOLE, clearly a film that started life as one thing and ended by reaching out for something else, not quite achieving either. I fist watched it as a kid, and while the STAR WARS-inspired action scenes and the robots suggest a child-friendly adventure yarn, there’s some quite disturbing content and themes explored also. As well as that it’s a surprisingly atmospheric and melancholic film, exemplified by that shot of the Cygnus lighting into life…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. vinnieh

    Yes, I would say that this is one of Disney’s darkest, but there’s an underlying hope to it too. I always found the message of treating others how you’d like to be treated to be very personal and deeply felt. Plus, the hypocrisy of Frollo is exposed without any sugar coating of any form. He’s a truly despicable man whose prejudice is his greatest downfall. I love Esmeralda; she’s feisty and caring in equal measure. I adore how she stands up for those without a voice and refuses to be silenced.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dan

    Like has been mentioned above, by go-to dark Disney film is often Something Wicked This Way Comes but the studio’s reputation for childlike, almost infantile, innocence is a cloak for some very dark themes. I love your dissection of Notre Dame, a film I’m not well-versed in (I saw it years ago but can’t remember much about it). I’m tempted to revisit the film now with a new perspective at hand.

    Liked by 1 person


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