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The year is 1480 in Paris. Dom Claude Frollo, a highly religious man, adopts an abandoned, deformed baby on the steps of Notre Dame, believing him to be sent by God. He names the child Quasimodo and raises him as his son.
Twenty-five years later, on the day of the Feast of Fools, Quasimodo is named the King of Fools by Clopin, the King of the Gypsies. Esmeralda honours Quasimodo with a dance. Both Frollo and Gringoire, a wandering poet, see her dancing. Gringoire falls in love with Esmeralda, while Frollo becomes entranced by her and begins to lust after her. He stops the dance, and scolds Quasimodo, telling him that if he ever goes outside the cathedral again, Frollo will not help him.
Frollo, after physically punishing himself for his lustful thoughts towards Esmeralda, pays two guards to kidnap the gypsy. They attempt to take her by force, but their plan is thwarted by Gringoire and Quasimodo, who protect her. Gringoire ultimately is nearly hanged by the gypsies for trespassing on the Court of Miracles, but Esmeralda says she will marry him in return for rescuing her.
Angered by Quasimodo's interference in his plans to kidnap Esmeralda, Frollo allows Quasimodo to pay the price for attacking Esmeralda, even though he is innocent. Esmeralda begs King Louis to stop the torture (fifty strikes of a whip) but the King regards her as not a 'real woman', and refuses to listen to her. Quasimodo is left for public humiliation for one hour, during which many people throw fruit at him. Quasimodo begs the crowd for water. Instead of helping him, they mock him further by shouting, "Water," back at him. Frollo ignores Quasimodo's attempts to get his attention. Esmeralda later gives Quasimodo some water. As a result, he becomes deeply infatuated with her.
Esmeralda and Gringoire's platonic marriage progresses into a physical, romantic and emotional one. Frollo decides to take matters into his own hands and, incognito, reveals the depths of his feelings to Esmeralda. They eventually meet, but Esmeralda reads his palm and sees death. Terrified, she runs away, dropping her knife in the process. As a result, Frollo takes the knife and stabs a minister with it, whom had also been reading a book, something Frollo hates as he believes it will encourage atheist views.
Esmeralda is tried for the murder, and found guilty. Frollo tells her that by becoming his sexual slave she can have absolution, but she refuses. Quasimodo saves her from being hanged and publicly declares sanctuary.
Esmeralda stays in Notre Dame and she and Quasimodo bond. He reveals his adoration for her and they become close friends. He introduces her to the bells of Notre Dame, and tells her of his plans to write a 600-page book. Esmeralda confesses that she misses her goat, Djali, so Quasimodo goes to the court of miracles to retrieve the goat. Here, he is established as an ally of Gringoire and Clopin. He gives his book to Gringoire to distribute to the citizens of Paris.
When he returns, Esmeralda has gone. He confronts Frollo, who openly admits that he turned Esmeralda over to the authorities. Frollo loses control and tells Quasimodo that he should have abandoned him as a baby, and also tells him that Esmeralda could never love him because of his excessive deformities. He attempts to whip Quasimodo, but Quasimodo prevents him.
Esmeralda is about to be hanged once more, but the gypsies rebel against the higher classes and demand that she be set free. King Louis demands who did kill the minister. Quasimodo, hanging Frollo over the edge of a balcony on Notre Dame, forces him to confess to the crime. Frollo does so, believing he has gained absolution for his sins. Esmeralda is freed and goes to Notre Dame to thank Quasimodo. However, a newly reformed Frollo falls under temptation again and nearly stabs Esmeralda, until Quasimodo holds him back. Quasimodo is stabbed by Frollo instead. The pair fight, resulting in Frollo falling over the edge of Notre Dame and dying. Quasimodo nearly falls, until Esmeralda and Gringoire help him. Quasimodo tells Esmeralda that the pain is too much, but when she attempts to tend his wounds he reveals that the biggest wound lies in his heart. Gringoire and Esmeralda ring the bells of Notre Dame in tribute to Quasimodo as he dies.