When my mom took us kids to see Hercules in the summer of ‘97, I had already picked up a few mythology books and was well versed in the story of Hercules. I let out a few early eye rolls, especially at Hera being portrayed as Herc’s loving mother, but it didn’t take the film long to win me over, despite the butchering of the original myth. I still love the film’s character design in a visual style reminiscent of ancient Greek pottery, fleshed out and come to life. And though my preteen self was probably reluctant to admit it, the music and those groovy Muses had me hooked.
The Disney crew did the best they could to work with myth and keep it family friendly. Here, Hercules is the beloved son of Zeus and Hera. When Hades hears a prophecy that Hercules will ruin his plans to overthrow Zeus and take over Olympus, he sends his minions to kill the baby Hercules. Instead they only turn him mortal and Herc is adopted by a kind older couple.
The film flashes forward to awkward early teens Hercules where he feels so out of place due to his unusual strength. He learns he is the son of Zeus, who tells his long lost son that his godhood can be restored if he proves himself a true hero. But even after years of training under Phil, Danny Devito in satyr form, Hercules finds that being a true hero is not easy. Especially while sassy Meg distracts Herc and Hades is constantly trying to kill him.
Personally, I enjoy how Disney handled Hercules as a character. The myths paint him as the most masculine macho man who ever lived, and he is not always a nice guy. Here, he is a sweet, awkward young man born with extra muscles just trying to make his way to Olympus. I’ve heard some criticize that Hercules is the opposite side of the coin to Disney’s Princess problem, but I disagree. Hercules is supposed to be all about manly strength, and Disney brings him down to a boy’s level in an endearing and pleasantly heroic way. Even when he is famous enough to have sandals named after him, he still has a heart of gold.
Unlike my favorite character, Hades. James Woods voices this baddie with so much charisma, wisecracks and snappy one-liners. Artistically, I think the Disney animators did a great job and had a lot of fun with this ruler of the underworld. At the top, blue flickering flames provide his hair and down at the bottom, his toga drags swirling black smoke around him, providing a perfectly evil atmosphere. Best of all, his hotheadedness provides some great gags that never get old.
Hercules is a modern gem in the vast array of Disney’s animated films. It gracefully combines a unique style of animation with fun retelling of an ancient myth, rather than the usual fairy tales. Best of all, there is a good lesson about working towards a big goal and what makes a true hero. Disney makes fun parallels between Hercules and modern day athletes and the way we idolize them. No one becomes a true hero by scoring points in a game, or even caging up a few man-eating birds in a montage. Hercules learns he won’t become a true hero until he puts someone else’s needs before his own glory.
“Uh, guys… Olympus would be that way.”