watched May 13, 2012
The Hunchback of Notre Dame addresses a theme we haven't seen in a Disney film since Robin Hood. And this time, it is treated with a much more serious tone. Let's face it: human characters bring the subject of injustice much closer to home than a couple of anthropomorphic foxes and bears ever could. Additionally, a religious figure portraying the villain adds a weighty, complex layer of tension in the story. With the grand, yet intimidating Notre Dame in the backdrop, the film narrows in on deep, personal crises experienced by our main characters.
One of the only females in the story, Esmeralda is the least conflicted, acting boldly against Frollo and his corrupt justice system. She is unafraid of consequences because she has nothing to lose. This determined constancy is perhaps the reason why Disney chose her to sing the deeply meaningful theme song, "God Help the Outcasts." Whereas other characters experience more doubt, she clearly feels the chasm between the message of hope the Church supposedly proclaims and the oppression that is actually demonstrated towards her people.
Phoebus' ability to follow orders earns him respect and influence in the community. But when he is asked to do something he knows to be wrong, he must decide if he will take the easy route, or bear the disgrace of rebelling against a corrupt power.
Conversely, despite his good heart, Quasimodo, our main character, has never experienced acceptance. Fear and naiveté are what drive him to remain within Frollo's control. As the wall of lies he has been told crumbles along with Notre Dame herself, Quasimodo struggles to defy the one he called Master, even when others' lives are threatened.
Finally, Frollo's crisis is a very different kind. The thick mask of righteousness and piety he wears prevents him from admitting to the darkness of lust and pride that dwell in him. In effort to keep his secrets hidden, he uses fake religious fervor as a means of getting what he wants. The result is not only the destruction of the entire city, but also the destruction of his own tormented soul.
Justice is not just a theoretical, ambiguous idea. It pierces the hearts of individual lives. In a world where life is plagued by things that shouldn't be, we encounter these same crises of conscience. We can choose to cling to a false reality, or to believe that something beyond ourselves is worth the risk of taking a stand. While Frollo is incapable of moving past his own selfish pride, Esmeralda, Phoebus, and Quasimodo count it worthy to give themselves up for something much greater.
In the final scene, Quasimodo cries "Sanctuary!" -- claiming Notre Dame's promise of safety and solace. Our sanctuary, true justice, lies not in an ancient cathedral, or in a pious appearance. It lies in a Person, who was once an outcast, too, and who indeed gave up everything to become our Sanctuary.