If I’m going to say only one thing about Disney’s Hercules, it’s that it is nowhere near as dirty, bizarre, or epic as the original Greek myths it draws from… BUT…. it was still my very favorite Disney movie right up until 2016. That’s right, folks. I said it. Hercules is the best Disney movie of all time until Zootopia.
Deal with it.
I grew up obsessed with Greek mythology (a skill which may have been useless to a child but as a teenager would serve me well and help me not only pass but ACE my one semester astronomy class). I knew the myths, I knew the variations, I knew the different stories that were later written and inspired by them. I even knew something about the Trojan War thanks to Wishbone and a glimpse of early Greek theatre through various picture books and tons of Renaissance paintings. Complex, weird, disgusting, insane stories about people who were not always good or bad but sometimes were both… and lots of bizarre magical combination animals (pegasus! chimera! hippogriff! hippocampus! sphinx! basilisk! cockatrice! THE LISTS GO ON PEOPLE). I loved all of it. Especially puzzling out how to say their names out loud (Eurydice eluded me until high school, but I was especially proud of figuring out Bellerophon and Halcyone and Persephone myself). I love that the stories are found echoed throughout history, across different civilizations – as most good stories are. I didn’t discover Norse, Egyptian, or Hindu mythology until much later, and although my excitement for old stories continued on those paths too… the Greeks were my pantheon. My favorites.
Never mind the Romans who literally couldn’t even be bothered to do their own thing but they just renamed everyone… I mean really: Athena becoming Minerva?! Go home, Caesar.
So Disney’s Hercules hit theatres in 1997 and I exploded with joy. Somehow, even in spite of my brain pulling a total BBC Sherlock while I watched it the first time…
…somehow, SOMEHOW, I enjoyed it immensely anyway. The animation is gorgeous. The color palettes are all perfect. The witty one-liners are the punchiest. This is arguably one of the most quotable Disney movies in my opinion – a feat which combines both the excellence of the screenplay and of the voice actors. Danny DeVito. James Woods. Rip Torn. Charlton Heston is the NARRATOR for a hot second. Not to mention the Muses – Roz Ryan, LaChanze, Cheryl Freeman, Lillias White, and Vaneese Y. Thomas.
They almost had the Spice Girls but scheduling was a beast.
The bottom line here is that somehow this movie clings to the deepest joyful parts of my imagination and I love it with a passion. I fully admit that I may overlook some faults because I like it so much. My apologies for any biases that may sneak into this post…
The Film: Hercules (1997)
- Directing duo Ron Clements and John Musker wanted so badly to produce a Disney feature film about Robert Louis Stephenson’s “Treasure Island”… but set it in futuristic space. Jeffrey Katzenberg (KATZENBERGGGGG!) said that if they could produce another film as successful and beautiful as Aladdin, the studio would greenlight their Treasure Planet. And so Hercules was born… and Treasure Planet got greenlit… although critics considered Hercules a flop. (Additionally, they had considered adapting Homer’s “The Odyssey” for Disney but, like, how even would that work, guys. So obviously they didn’t.)
- Although Hercules went through many rewrites, Musker and Clements decided to go with a superhero style origin story for the main plot. And as usual, there were many candidates for voicing the lead roles….
- Susan Egan had been begging to be in a Disney film for years, and was even told not to audition for this one, since Alan Menken was convinced the lovely Broadway leading lady couldn’t possibly fit the snarky, sharp-tongued Megara. But Susan auditioned anyway, and nine agonizing months later, won the role.
- James Woods was not the first choice for Hades – in fact, among the many considerations, John Lithgow had actually been cast and recorded many of the lines before the producers cut him from the film and needed to re-cast. It was Danny DeVito’s idea to contact James Woods, who provided much of the attitude, flair, and sarcasm that makes the role so iconic today. It was as though Robin Williams’ legacy as Genie was now being passed down to a villainous role, and it made all the difference to this movie.
- It is the first film to not have a “villain song” since Oliver and Company. (And while The Rescuers Down Under didn’t have a true villain number, MacLeach did sing “Home on the Range” briefly.)
- In its first two weeks of general release, The Lion King made $119 million. Pocahontas made $80 million in the same amount of time. Hercules, on the other hand, made only $58 million in box office grosses during the first weeks of its theatrical run. Yowza. That’s a lot of money… but a huge gap from this to The Lion King.
- Despite being very very different from the actual Greek mythology it is inspired by, Hercules is riddled with references both to modern day pop culture and to ancient tales of heroes and gods. There are too many to list here – REPEAT: TOO MANY TO LIST HERE. But this is me acknowledging that they’re in there. Whatever – anyway – ON TO THE FILM.
- Charlton Heston is the BEST narrator – for a hot minute. Literally he’s only there for a minute before the Muses interrupted him.
- Aly: “Yeaaaaah. Hera was not his real mom.” Drew: “No. No she was not. This is just how this movie starts.”
- (Zeus creates Pegasus from cloud stuff) Drew: “Oh, here it comes.” Aly: “AHH!” Drew: “Are you okay?” Aly: *dissolves into faint, ecstatic squeaks* Drew: “Well… he is a really cute little foal. With his sniffy nose. And his flappy wings.”
- Hades immediately sets the tone for zappy one liners and aggressive comedy in the style of Robin Williams’ Genie. “Is this an audience or a mosaic?”
- The Underworld feels very H.R. Giger… like a xenomorph is gonna come out of the wall or something.
- (Amphitryon and his wife show Hercules the medallion from when they found him.) Aly: “Oh my gosh, it’s the Clark Kent talk.” Drew: “It IS. This is totally a superhero origin film!” Aly: “Also that’s not really the gods’ symbol – it’s just Zeus’ symbol. It’s his stamp.”
- The temple of Zeus that Hercules goes to is completely empty – no acolytes, no supplicants, nothing. What gives? It’s more like a D&D temple – nobody’s home, but if you move wrong, you’ll set of a trap.
- Drew: “Take a breath, man. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh, he’s still going. BREATHE DUDE!” Aly: “Ladies and gentlemen, Roger Bart.”
- By the time Hercules and Pegasus reach the island where Phil is hiding, the animation quality has gone up considerably: expressions and physicality are much more well-defined. Starting to see why the critics thought this movie was inconsistent…
- (Hercules hits the final note of “Go The Distance”) Drew: “Oh my gosh… the river guardian has a butt head. Like his head… his head is a butt?” Aly: “Yes. Also he’s voiced by Jim Cummings.” Drew: “…literal butt head.”
- Aly: “The rumor I heard for why Megara isn’t in the parks that much –” Drew: “Is because she’s too sexy?” Aly: “…no! Because the giant high ponytail wig is so heavy that girls were getting neck pain.” Drew: “Oh. Right.”
- The group of complaining citizens of Thebes would be sooooo goooood as a group cosplay.
- Drew: “I don’t know why Hercules has such well-defined knees, of all things.” Aly: “I mean, yes, his knees are nice. His thighs are good. His arms are really good. I mean his calves too… he’s kind of an all-around well drawn charac–” Drew: “OKAY OKAY ENOUGH.”
- (Child in the rock quarry: “Someone call IXII!”) Aly: “I am ashamed to confess that it took me literal years to figure out that joke. Ashamed, do you hear me?”
- Admittedly, the Hydra is a feat of computer animation that is astonishing for this time and level of complexity.
- This is where both Drew and Aly recall first learning the hand-gesture-that-indicates-the-curves-of-a-woman’s-body. From this exact cartoon. Go figure.
- Zeus: “Being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero.” Aly: “BAM. Truth bomb!”
- The post-date scene in the garden reminded us of Pastoral Symphony (again) and also the montage in Aladdin’s “A Whole New World.”
- Meg and Hercules versus Hades is actually the exact same story (basically) as the musical “Damn Yankees.” Servant of the devil, sent to distract and destroy the protagonist, but they fall in love instead, and try to thwart the devil. How did I never notice that before?!
- The latter 20 minutes of the film are a wild roller coaster – this movie has excellent pacing throughout – and everything happens in exactly the right amount of time. It’s really impressive at every turn.
- Drew: “This is their second almost-kiss. Rule of threes.” Aly: “Ah yes the patented SMOOCHUS INTERRUPTUS.”
- With all my heart, I believe this movie’s ending is the most jubilant and delightful. Talk about get up outta your seat and celebrate! It’s just perfect.
Disney Renaissance Credits Slow Jam:
!!!!BONUS SLOW JAM… EN ESPANOL!!!!
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