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As far as openings of a Disney movie go, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is pretty dark from the beginning, though you initially don’t think so. The song begins with Clopin gathering children to his stall to tell them the story of the mysterious bell ringer who lives in the towers of the cathedral.
Morning in Paris, the city awakes
To the bells of Notre Dame
The fisherman fishes, the bakerman bakes
To the bells of Notre Dame
To the big bells as loud as the thunder
To the little bells soft as a psalm
And some say the soul of the city’s
The toll of the bells
The bells of Notre Dame
You know things are going to be interesting though, when Clopin begins his story with “It’s a tale, a tale of a man…and a monster…” The story then flashes back twenty years to a group of gypsies who are sneaking into Paris.
Dark was the night when our tale was begun
On the docks near Notre Dame
Four frightened gypsies slid silently under
The docks near Notre Dame
But a trap had been laid for the gypsies
And they gazed up in fear and alarm
At a figure whose clutches
Were iron as much as the bells, the bells of Notre Dame
Judge Claude Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin,
And he saw corruption everywhere, except within
The verses here are interspersed with excerpts from the Latin mass, Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy) and Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). This is one detail that I’ve always loved about the score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the connection to the mass, which back in the time this film was set in was a big deal in people’s daily lives.
The story is already dark enough: the gypsies are captured and arrested for no other crime than being gypsies, but then it gets worse. A soldier notices the bundle the woman is carrying and Frollo assumes it’s stolen goods when a quick check would have revealed it’s just a baby. Instead, Frollo (the best example of a hypocrite you’ll find in any Disney film) callously demands the bundle be taken away which prompts the woman to run for her life with her baby with the strains of Dies Irae in the background. It’s a pulse-pounding sequence as the woman dodges and leaps through the snowy streets of Paris with Frollo close behind on his black horse (he’s the villain so naturally it’s a black horse).
This chase leads to one of the most shocking moments in any Disney film (so shocking that I’m still contemplating adding it to the Disturbing Disney series). First, at the steps of the cathedral, Frollo seizes the baby, causing the mother to fall back and hit her head on the stone steps, killing her instantly. Then, when Frollo realizes he’s holding a baby, one he deems a ‘monster’ because of its deformities, he spots a well in the square and rides over to drop the baby in!! Let me repeat that: the villain of the film was clearly attempting infanticide (in a Disney film) and was only stopped because the archdeacon intervened!
I love the interchange between the archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers) and Frollo. The latter obviously feels no guilt for what has happened and his callousness infuriates the priest.
Archdeacon: (singing) See there the innocent blood you have spilt
On the steps of Notre Dame
Frollo: I am guiltless. She ran, I pursued.
Archdeacon: Now you would add this child’s blood to your guilt
On the steps of Notre Dame?
Frollo: My conscience is clear
Archdeacon: You can lie to yourself and your minions
You can claim that you haven’t a qualm
But you never can run from nor hide what you’ve done from the eyes
The very eyes of Notre Dame
And for one time in his life of power and control,
Frollo felt a twinge of fear for his immortal soul
There’s actually a double meaning in the archdeacon’s last line. “The eyes of Notre Dame” doesn’t just refer to the eyes of the sculptures covering the cathedral. It can also refer to Our Lady, meaning the Virgin Mary (who is greatly revered in Roman Catholicism). This last portion of the song sets up Frollo’s one weakness, if you can call it that. Above all else, he fears going to Hell when he dies. That’s why he accepts the punishment of raising Quasimodo for the rest of his days (though I’m sure keeping him locked up in the bell tower was not what the archdeacon had in mind).
“The Bells of Notre Dame” provides a beautifully crafted introduction to the film, one of the best in the Disney Renaissance. What do you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!
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