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She is a fearless and streetwise gypsy with a heart of gold (and is very capable of defending herself). She's also able to look beyond physical appearances and is one of the first and only people in both films to befriend the deformed yet lovable hunchback Quasimodo. Esmeralda is a wonderful heroine whose greatest wish is to see outcasts like Quasimodo and her fellow gypsies be accepted into society and be treated as people. She also seems to be quite witty, as when Phoebus first confronts her in the church, she verbally challenges him.
She is quite passionate and demands justice, and displays this at the Festival of Fools when she stands up for Quasimodo while the crowd jeers at him thanks to Frollo's men who started the riot. After the Festival she sings "God help the Outcasts" which also leads Quasimodo to her. But before Quasimodo can talk to her, a parishioner, who mistakes him causing trouble, unexpectedly shouts at him, causing Quasimodo to knock down a candlestaff and returns to the bell tower. Esmeralda was terrified, realizing what the parishioner has done, follows him. The parishioner also attempts to stop her and Djali from following him, but he is then stopped by the archdeacon. She finds Quasimodo in the bell tower and apologizes to him for what happened at the festival.
She is very beautiful and attracts the attention of three men during the course of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo is the first to fall for her as soon as he meets her during the Festival of Fools. Claude Frollo takes a (rather unhealthy) liking to the gypsy as well and develops a perverse and twisted obsession with her. Accusing her of witchcraft, he attempts to have her burned at the stake, forcing her to choose him or the fire, only for Esmeralda to reject him. The last of the three men to fall for her is Captain Phoebus, and he is eventually the one who winds up earning her love in return after Esmeralda realizes that he is not like Frollo's other men.
Esmeralda is first seen dancing in the streets for coins. Two guards come along and harass her, but with the help of Djali and Phoebus, Esmeralda escapes. She is then seen dancing at the festival of fools and catches the attention of everyone, even Frollo. When the time comes to crown the king of fools, she pulls Quasimodo onto the stage, thinking his face to be a mask. And she is understandably surprised to find out it is really his face. When the crowd is torturing Quasimodo, she solely comes to his aid and accuses Frollo of cruelty for not having it stopped sooner and for not providing justice to "the least of these in need of [his] help". Frollo orders her arrest for her defiance, but she uses magic to disappear by blowing her nose, after which Frollo accuses her of witchcraft.
Esmeralda expertly dodges and outwits the soldiers sent after her and ultimately disappears from view by flipping onto a tent, after sufficiently humiliating Frollo and the sentries. Esmeralda is next seen following Quasimodo into the cathedral disguised together with Djali as an old man but is followed by Phoebus. She is initially aggressive towards him, up to the point of attacking him with a candlestick, but engages in conversation when he puts away his sword and introduces himself.
When Frollo arrives and orders Phoebus to arrest her, Phoebus refuses, saying that Esmeralda has claimed sanctuary. Frollo and the soldiers are ordered out of the church by the Archdeacon. Frollo stays behind long enough to warn her that she can only stay inside for so long and hints at a physical attraction to the gypsy girl through sexual assault, eliciting repulsion from her. Frollo leaves and stations guards at every door, forcing Esmeralda to rethink her exit strategy. The Archdeacon counsels her against antagonizing Frollo further and at his suggestion, she offers a heartfelt prayer to God to help her and her people.
Enchanted by her song, Quasimodo watches from afar and stumbles on some candles, alerting her of his presence after a parishioner who mistaken him causing trouble shouted at him. He escapes away to the belltower and she chases him, attempting to apologize to him for bringing him onto the stage while the parishioner is then stopped by the Archdeacon when he attempted to stop her and Djali from following him. She then stumbles upon Quasimodo's workshop and is instantly impressed by his talent. He begins to understand what she means him no harm and decides to show her around the bell tower. Esmeralda expresses her surprise that such a cruel man like Frollo raised such a wonderful boy. Quasimodo says that Frollo took him in even though he is a monster.
Esmeralda cites Frollo's lie that gypsies are evil and says Frollo may be wrong about them both. Quasimodo offers to let her live with him in the bell tower where she can have sanctuary but she expresses her desire to escape the church as "gypsies don't do well in stone walls". Quasimodo carries her and Djali down the tower to the streets where she can escape. Esmeralda asks him to come with her, but he knows he would not be welcome and his place remains in the tower. Esmeralda promises they will meet again and gives him a map of the town which will lead him to the Court of Miracles where all the gypsies are hiding. Shortly afterward, Frollo initiates a manhunt for her and throws the town into chaos.
She observes from a distance and sees him burn down an innocent family's house. Phoebus saves them in time and is arrested. She uses her sash to slingshot a rock at Frollo's horse, creating a distraction that allows Phoebus to escape by horseback but Frollo has his guards shoot Phoebus with a single arrow and Phoebus' wound nearly kills him. Esmeralda's quick thinking and medical attention save Phoebus' life, and she brings him to Quasimodo whom she knows will help her. She tends to his wounds and passionately kisses Phoebus, unwittingly breaking Quasimodo's heart as he was convinced she was attracted to him. She escapes the bell tower when she hears Frollo approaching and leaves Phoebus in Quasimodo's care. Frollo bluffs that he knows where the Court of Miracles is and that he will attack it in the morning with one thousand men. Quasimodo and Phoebus quickly reach the Court of Miracles using the map Esmerelda gave them to try and warn them, only for Frollo to suddenly appear, having used Quasimodo to lead him there. Esmerelda is captured and sentenced to burn at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. As Frollo holds the torch to set the pyre ablaze, he offers her one last chance to be with him or be burned. She spits in his face in utter disgust and he attempts to burn her alive.
She is saved in time by Quasimodo but ends up nearly suffocated and falls unconscious. Quasimodo cries over her seemingly dead body before fighting off Frollo. Esmeralda manages to awake, alive, and is rescued by Quasimodo from Frollo's attacks. They hide holding onto the balcony of the tall bell-tower but Frollo sees them and attacks them with his sword. Eventually, Esmeralda is knocked away and Frollo tries to get Quasimodo off his feet but is pulled down with Quasimodo. Esmeralda holds Quasi for dear life as Frollo climbs up on a gargoyle and prepares to hit them with his sword screaming "He shall smite the wicked and plunge them into a fiery pit!" However, the gargoyle starts to break off the cathedral causing Frollo to fall to his fiery death. The gargoyle seemed to briefly come to life, with glowing eyes, suggesting either that Frollo is now quite insane or that a divine intervention occurred: The judge had unwittingly spoken his own doom, a higher power deciding that Frollo, and not Esmeralda and Quasimodo, was "the wicked" that deserved to be plunged into the pit of fire. Esmeralda accidentally releases her grip on Quasimodo, but Phoebus, who found a way into the cathedral after Quasimodo and the gargoyles pour molten lead that prevented Frollo's soldiers from breaking in, saves him.
Phoebus, realizing Quasimodo's feelings for Esmeralda, stands aside so Quasimodo can be with her. However, Quasimodo realizes their feelings for each other and interlocks their hands, having accepted their love and the two kiss. As Phoebus and Esmeralda emerge safely from the church to cheers to triumph from the crowd, Esmeralda extends her hand to Quasimodo to join them outside. As Quasimodo joins her, he is finally accepted into the town population
She is similar to Mamiya from the Fist of the North Star.
The filmmakers briefly considered having Quasimodo killed off, since that is his fate in the original novel. He was originally supposed to be stabbed by Frollo, then Esmeralda regains consciousness and tries to save him by killing Frollo. Phoebus was then supposed to meet up with them, and Quasimodo's last wish was to ring the bells one last time. They take him to the bells, then Esmeralda and Phoebus help him ring the bells as he dies. The final shot was going to include Esmeralda and Phoebus crying over their best friend as the people of Paris cheer for their success, unaware of Quasimodo's death.
The filmmakers originally wanted Esmeralda to kill Judge Frollo in order to save Quasimodo. Esmeralda would've jumped onto the ledge then grabbed Quasimodo's hand. Judge Frollo would've attempted to kill Quasimodo with his sword then Esmeralda would've kicked Judge Frollo off the cathedral causing Frollo to fall to his death. This idea was ultimately abandoned, as having a heroine kill the villain was considered improper in a family film and may have gotten the film a PG-13 rating.