I’d like to dedicate this one to my sister Elanor, who’s turning 21 today. I love you, kid.
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
117/ 93 Minutes
After the grim and serious HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, Disney lightened the tone considerably with HERCULES. Of course, technically it should be HERACLES, since Hercules was the roman name, but that’s just one in a long long list of changes Disney made to the Greek myths. There are probably entire websites dedicated to the “mistakes” made by the filmmakers, but hey, artistic licence.
Reuniting the directors of THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986), THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) and ALADDIN (1992), HERCULES is one part buddy-movie, one part coming-of-age story, and one large part ROCKY-with-sandals, but first and foremost it’s a light-hearted screwball romp with a couple of life lessons thrown in. Production started in late 1994, with character designs based on classical Greek statues, with help from satirical cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe, who served as character designer, giving the film a new, unusually quirky style.
Understandably, the Greek government declined to allow Disney premiering the film at national landmark Pynx hill- after the Greek media and public panned the film for “ distorting our history and culture just to suit their commercial interests”. Despite that little wrinkle, HERCULES went on to gross $99 million, something of a disappointment for the studio, whilst earning a number of Annie Awards for direction, production and Individual Achievement for Character Animation (for Hades, funnily enough).
SYNOPSIS: A sombre, Classical narration from none other than Charlton Heston is interrupted by the Muses, our lyrical guides and narrators; after setting up the back-story- how Zeus (Rip Torn) overthrew the tyrannical Titans and brought peace to the world, we’re taken to Mount Olympus, where the Gods and Goddesses have assembled to celebrate the birth of Zeus and Hera’s bouncy baby boy, Hercules. The one shadow in the little sunspot’s celebrations is Hades (James Woods), who secretly plots to overthrow Zeus and claim the worlds for himself. The Fates inform him that in eighteen years, the planets will align, allowing him to unleash the Titans and set his coup in motion, and only Hercules can stop him.
In the middle of the night, Zeus and Hera (Samantha Eggar) are woken by the sounds of a struggle, and find Hercules’ crib empty. Hades’ minions, Pain and Panic, force-feed the baby a formula to turn him mortal (and therefore killable), but the timely arrival of Amphitryon (Hal Holbrook) and Alcemene (Barbara Barrie) prevent them from feeding him the last drop.
By the time the Gods have located the little Godling, Hercules is in the care of his new adoptive parents, a mortal. But, Hercules retains his superhuman strength, which leads to alienation and fear as the lad grows up. After causing utter chaos at a market, the teenaged Hercules laments his never fitting in, and Amphitryon and Alcemene finally reveal the truth. Seeking answers, Hercules walks to the Temple of Zeus. Before his eyes, the statue comes to life and embraces his son, all grown up.
After reuniting him with his infant-hood friend/pet, the winged stallion Pegasus, Zeus explains that the only way for Hercules to regain his godhood is to become a “true hero”. To that end, Hercules seeks out Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), an old satyr and trainer of heroes. Phil is reluctant to train Hercules, having had a lifetime of disappointments; Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus. A lot of “yeuseus.” But Hercules (with a little help from Dad) is able to convince the cranky old goat-man to train him. Cue training montage (you need a montage! Yeah!)
After a lot of training and a change of voice actor, Hercules rides out to Thebes, The Big Olive, a town with a lot of problems only a hero can fix. Along the way, Hercules meets with Megara (Susan Egan), and rescues her from the centaur Nessus, not that she’s glowing with gratitude. After falling head over heels for her, Hercules is reminded he has a job to do in Thebes, and reluctantly leaves Meg behind… whereupon she meets with her “employer”, Hades, who doesn’t take the news of Hercules’ still being alive very well…
Arriving in Thebes, Hercules is pretty much ignored and ridiculed by the depressed, downtrodden citizens, at least until he slays the monstrous Hydra. Within the timeframe of another musical number and montage, Hercules grows in popularity, becoming a nationwide sensation as he easily defeats every monster and natural disaster Hades can throw at him (while making a few jokes about sweatshops and commercialism along the way). But while he’s admired and adored, he’s yet to prove himself a true hero. He finds himself turning to Meg, and Meg finds herself falling for Herc. After spending a day playing hookie, Hercules begins to admit his feelings for her… just as Phil arrives to break up the party. As Pegasus flies off with Hercules, Phil is thrown off and left behind, knocked unconscious by the landing. He wakes up just in time to see Meg meeting with Hades, and rushes to tell Hercules. The big lug is too twitterpated to listen, and the resulting fight leads to a Phil walking out on Hercules, heartbroken.
Using Meg’s growing affections as a bargaining chip, Hades comes to Hercules with an offer: Give up his strength for twenty-four hours (during which time the planets will align), and Meg will be released unharmed… Hercules agrees, losing his strength, and his will when Hades reveals Meg’s part in his hostile takeover of Olympus.
Hades unleashes the Titans upon Olympus, while he sends a colossal Cyclops to Thebes to deal with Hercules. Heartbroken, Hercules brushes Meg aside, determined to stand against the Cyclops. Meg convinces Phil to help Hercules, and his faith inspires him to defeat the Cyclops, but Meg is crushed by a falling pillar while shoving Hercules out of its path. Hades’ deal is broken, and Hercules’ strength restored. While Phil watches over Meg, Hercules rides to Olympus, freeing the Gods and casting the Titans into space. Hades is furious at his defeat, but is happy with a consolation prize: Meg’s soul.
Taking a chip from Orpheus’ tablet, Hercules enters the Underworld to save Meg’s soul from the River Styx, offering his life for hers. His ultimate sacrifice restores his godhood, and after throwing Hades into the Styx, he revives Meg and admits his love for her. Hercules is summoned to Olympus, where Zeus and Hera welcome their son home. But Hercules can’t bear life, even an eternal one, without Meg, and chooses to remain on Earth with her. Hercules returns to Thebes as a true hero, and Phil looks up to see a new constellation appearing in the night sky, commemorating Hercules’ heroism…
1. never give up on your dreams.
2. Sometimes your worst enemy is yourself
3. Strength of character can be greater than physical strength.
4. Celebrity and Heroism are not the same thing. Footballers, take note.
Voiced by Tate Donovan, Hercules is a fairly bland, clean-cut hero type. Naive and optimistic, his head rules his heart, and as fame and wealth go to his head, he loses sight of what he set out to achieve in the first place. His final altercation with Hades is generic, but effective, and there are times where Hercules pulls something really unexpected out of the bag. He’s almost the reverse of Aladdin- arguably the closest analogue; young outcast, animal sidekick, hidden potential- possessing great physical strength while being, how shall we say, not the sharpest arrow in the quiver.
Sassy, cynical, Meg is quite unique. It’s clear that she’s been burned in the past, which gives her prickly demeanour and acid wit you don’t often see in Disney heroines. Coupled with a slinky physique with just the right amount of curve, she’s easily one of the hottest Disney characters of all time. It’s also refreshing to have a heroine who doesn’t immediately fall for the hero; there’s an obvious attraction from the outset, but it takes time for her to lower her defences and admit she cares for Wonderboy. She gets her best material with Hades, however, and is easily a match for Phil, shooting them both down with a zingy one-liner that goes right over poor Herc’s head.
She technically counts as a Hench(wo)man, given that her soul is owned by Hades, but she’s about the only female character in the whole story.
James woods brings a fast-paced, manic performance, playing Hades like a sadistic game show host, his mile-a-minute delivery very much in the spirit of Robin William’s Genie (Woods ad-libbed a lot of his dialogue). While his plot is as old as his mythical namesake, Hades’ sheer force of character puts him right up there with the greatest Disney villains. His loquaciousness was something of a nightmare for his animator, taking “two weeks to animate a one-second scene”, while his animators watched other James Woods movies to perfect Hades’ sneer.
HIS FATE: Being a God, Hades is one of the few Disney villains to survive the movie; he is however cast into the River Styx, dragged down by 5,000,000,000-odd souls while Pain and Panic look on…
Sidekicks And Henchmen
DeVito’s Philoctetes (“Phil”) is a fairly stock character; he’s a trainer in the spirit of Mickey Goldmill, but DeVito’s performance makes him in many ways is the soul of the film. He’s the character you find yourself rooting for; Hercules becoming the god and hero of legend is a given- we all know he’s going to win the girl and earn his place in Olympus. But Phil’s tale is a little more heartfelt. He’s the real underdog, embittered by a life of disappointments, convinced to take one last shot at the big time.
Pegasus on the other hand, is Hercules’ best friend. And like all movie-best friends, he gets jealous when Meg arrives on the scene. Taking cues from Abu, though nowhere near as smart, Pegasus gets a couple of nice gags while basically being a combo of Herc’s ride and goof-off buddy.
Pain and Panic (voiced by Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer) are pretty stock as well, a pair of incompetents who (somehow) are entrusted with a lot of Hades’ schemes. And, surprisingly, they’re quite effective at times, notably when disguised as a pair of endangered children. Beyond that they’re fairly generic comedy henchmen, inadvertently enraging their boss at every turn though either incompetence or sheer ignorance.
Alan Menkin’s score is, as you’d expect, superb, giving the movie the epic feel it deserves.
Reimagining the Muses as a gospel/soul group was a bold move that might not have gone down well with the Classicists (what the hell are you doing watching a Disney movie?), but it works, providing a musical backbone to the whole film. Herc’s own solo, “Go the Distance“, is a pretty sweet, heartfelt affair, and its end-credits cover by Michael Bolton is actually bearable, while Meg’s anti-love song “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” is a refreshing change of pace, but for me, it’s Phil’s song “One Last Hope” that really stands out. I wouldn’t single out Danny DeVito as a great singer, but his performance really just sells it.
Aside from turning everything on its head and making HERCULES a screwball comedy with a moral, it’s a pretty basic hero/underdog story; working class kid makes good, gets the girl and earns his place in society. Hades’ scheme to overtake Olympus is seen in countless other movies, and the filmmakers throw in references to a stable-load of other myths, as well as the obligatory pop-culture references, Classicists be damned. Much like HUNCHBACK, and virtually every other Disney film, it takes the original story as a foundation and builds up in a totally different direction, telling their own story with ancient characters… and considering the amount of tinkering the Greek myths have had over the centuries, it’s not as much to swallow as HUNCHBACK’s happy ending.
HERCULES is pitched as a comedy, and Thalia would be proud. From the outset, we’re in for a fun ride, and even in the midst of a brutal battle, there’s a gag lying in wait to lighten the mood. Pain and Panic’s general incompetence is a main source of humour, while Hades himself grabs a gong for the sheer amount of quality material. Honestly, why the guy didn’t go into stand-up is beyond me.
There’s also a good deal of high-brow humour in there as well- gags for the Classicists in the audience; my personal favourite is a line from Hermes (Paul Shaffer) at Hercules’ birthday party; “You know, I haven’t seen this much love in a room since Narcissus discovered himself.”
Being so light-hearted, there aren’t a lot of real scares, but there are a few tense moments; when Pain and Panic take the form of serpents to kill the infant Hercules (leading to a slapstick routine where they’re tied up in knots and thrown into the middle distance), the Hydra battle (countered by Phil’s ringside pep-talks), and for all his fast-talking gags and visual humour, Hades has a couple of really dark moments.
If you’re looking for historical or literary accuracy… keep looking. This is not a straight adaptation of any particular god or myth. At its heart, it’s a movie about finding your place in the world, and the distances people go to find it. Phil teaches us that even if the world treats you like dirt, if you’ve got faith in something, it’s something worth fighting for. Megara is a bit of a scheming wench, but given that she’s under Hades’ thumb, we can afford to give her some slack, and she does absolve herself in the final act.
And like a lot of Disney movies, a big lesson is to be true to yourself, and not to let fame or power get in the way of what really matters.
A midquel, ZERO TO HERO, debuted a year afterwards and served as a pilot for THE ANIMATED SERIES which followed; set during the “One Last Hope” segment of the film, the young Hercules enrols in Prometheus College, studying and training to be a hero while suffering the usual trails and angst of teenaged life. The series crossed over with ALADDIN’s for one episode, where Hades and a recently-deceased Jafar join forces to get rid of each other’s nemesis. The series also ignores or retcons the later half of the movie across 65 half-hour episodes.
Olympus Coliseum features as a world in the KINGDOM HEARTS video game series, reuniting Donovan and DeVito as Hercules and Phil, while James Woods returned as Hades, himself becoming a recurring antagonist for the whole series.
Final score: 37/53
Next Time: Mulan