The Bells of Notre Dame
"The Bells of Notre Dame" is a song from the 1996 Disney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, composed by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. It is sung at the beginning of the film by the clown-like gypsy, Clopin. It is set mainly in the key of D minor. The song bears some similarity to the poem The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe, especially the repetition of the word "bells" during the crescendo. The song is reprised at the end of the film.
Disney Voice Actors: A Biographical Dictionary explains that "the opening sequence of [the film] was originally all narration and the result was deemed too lifeless so [The Bells of Notre Dame] was written".
During the song, Clopin tells young children about the mysterious bell-ringer of Notre Dame. He then talks about a story that goes back twenty years where a group of gypsies attempted to ferry their way into Paris, but are captured by Judge Claude Frollo and several soldiers. When the woman amongst the gypsies is seen carrying a bundle, a guard attempts to confiscate it prompting her to flee. Frollo pursues her on his horse, believing her to have stolen goods, in a brutal chase that comes to a head on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Frollo then takes the bundle out of her hands but in doing so strikes a blow to her head with his boot causing her to fall down onto the stone steps, breaking her neck and killing her. Frollo then learns that the bundle is actually a deformed baby. He sees a well and attempts to drown the baby as he thinks it is a demon from Hell, but is stopped by the Archdeacon, who tells Frollo that he has killed an innocent woman and that if he wishes for the survival of his immortal soul, he must raise the child as his own. Frollo reluctantly does so and raises the baby in the bell tower of Notre Dame, and gives him a cruel name; Quasimodo, which, according to Clopin, means "half-formed". It is quickly learned that Quasimodo is the mysterious bell-ringer.
The film itself, like most Disney Renaissance films, contains valuable moral information and so, in a way, can be called a "teaching story", besides being entertainment. This is one function of stories that are told to children: to give them, at least, the basic understanding of attitudes and behaviors encountered in the real world. Through the story of the song, Clopin tells the children that it is a tale of "a man and a monster". Towards the end he gives them a riddle for them to guess whilst being told the rest of the story, that being: "Who is the monster and who is the man?", thus introducing the major theme of the film. What is meant by these words is to get behind what often are merely appearances, and by doing so we get to the actual truth. This aspect of the story can be related to real life because people often make the error of mistaking appearances (that also may be false) for the real thing or for something else entirely. In this case, while in the beginning "the picture explicitly compares the queerness of Quasimodo to the righteousness of Frollo", by the end it would seem that Quasimodo is the monster due to his deformities while his master Frollo is the man due to his sleeker looks. It is implied by the end of the film, however, that it is now indeed a paradox and reversal of the statement attributed to the two personalities, not by their appearances. Singing the reprise of the song, Clopin gives a girl a new riddle: "What makes a monster and what makes a man?", stating that Quasimodo is the man because of his humble kindness and selfess bravery, while Frollo is deemed to be the monster because of his selfishness, cruelty, and intolerance.
The work Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film by Annalee R. Ward argues that the use of a play-within-a-play technique used in this opening number "enables the filmmakers to condense some of the story, telling us the setting instead of showing it". It adds that symbolically, Clopin's puppet show is a metaphor for what Disney has done to the original source material, having "reduced it to manipulated entertainment, ala 'tragedy lite'".
DVD Talk says that The Bells of Notre Dame and Out There "set...a perfect tone" for the film, which fumbles later with the Be Our Guest-esque A Guy Like You. Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film says it is a "dark, emotional scene". Disney Voice Actors: A Biographical Dictionary describes the number as "one of the most potent musical openings of any Disney film". The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television says the song "combines character and narrative beautifully".
- Hischak, Thomas S (2011-09-21). Disney Voice Actors: A Biographical Dictionary. ISBN 9780786462711.
- Ward, Annalee R (2002). Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film. ISBN 9780292773936.
- Griffin, Sean (2000-03-01). Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out. ISBN 9780814731239.
- Hischak, Thomas S (2008-06-02). The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television. ISBN 9780195335330.