A Study in Disney: ‘Hercules’ (1997)

| January 20, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Disney's Laboring on a Live-Action Hercules Remake | Vanity Fair

Remember the public gnashing and yowling that followed the decision to add three comedy gargoyles into Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame?  Remember the j’accuse that called up charges of inserting comedy characters into a dark and broody narrative in an effort to push McDonald’s toys and to radiate fodder for the marketing?  Well, hold on to that because here comes Hercules.

For many, Disney’s version of the story of Hercules is one of the biggest commercial desperation moves that the studio ever produced, an 89-minute commercial for everything under the sun that seemed branded less on the merits of continuing the artistic push of the Disney renaissance than in basically apologizing to its audience for the serious pretentiousness of Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Are they right?  Well, generally yes, but the move is not completely unreasonable.  The average popcorn audience will suffer artistic indulgence only so long, particularly when it comes to entertainment aimed at children, so it is obvious that Hercules was an attempt to lighten things up and to recapture the kind of comedy gold that made Aladdin a mega-hit. 

There was an attempt with Hercules to try something new and to try and make a film that was engaging to a mass audience.  There’s really nothing wrong with that.  There’s really nothing wrong with modern references and in-jokes that exist outside of the source, but the issue here is the mis-management of the story being told.  While Aladdin was sly and clever with its comedy, it used its in-jokes and pop culture references but put them in service of a good story.  Hercules tried to be all things to all people, spreading its comedy far and wide but leaving large and important portions of its story unformed and unfinished and some of the motivations unclear.  In that, its purpose is also unclear.  Is this a parody?  A satire?  If it is, what is it parodying?  What is this film trying to be?  How far should the story have strayed from its origins?

The story, of course, comes from Greek mythology, but the many adventures of Hercules that we know (gathered together over time as ‘The Twelve Labors’) have been set aside here in favor of paralleling more modern epics that would be recognizable to a late 20th century audience.  That said, this essay is not going to focus on the inaccuracies with the original Hercules myth because while Disney’s version uses the names and places and characters merely as a basic framework, its template comes from more modern legends wrought from modern pop culture – three in particular.

First is Superman.  Disney’s Hercules is, at heart, a superhero story.  The narrative bows to Superman as the tale of a nearly invincible godly being who is cast out of his home to live among the mortals, falls in love with one of their number, finds out that his father is a god and that his destiny is to be the savior of mankind.  This is not unusual.  Many superhero narratives were pried from mythology adhering to the drama of a person who has god-like powers but still has to deal with the patterned shenanigans of man.  What is interesting is that the Hercules model bred a great deal of the Superman myths and now here is a Hercules story incorporating them back again.

The issue with this model is that if Hercules has a destiny to help mankind he doesn’t really take it to heart.  He treats it more as an assignment than a force of will calling him to whatever he is fated to accomplish.  He thinks that he is called to be a hero, a word that this movie tags on him as if it were a profession.  He’s not really very caring with regard to the mortals that he serves – they are portrayed as petty and easily led.  Hercules only loves the mortal populace when they begin worshipping him and buying his merchandise.  Whenever he is called to save someone, he seems to take it as an opportunity to make one step toward being restored to godhood.  This arrogant attitude wouldn’t be a problem if Hercules learned something along the way, but he doesn’t.  The movie portrays this arrogance as a virtue without the benefit of a learning curve.  Yes, he attains sycophants and designer sandals but what has he learned?

This brings us to the second inspiration which is Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordon.  This comes as an off-shoot of the superhero motif.  Sports heroes in our society are largely seen as the closest thing to the mythological heroes that we have, so their deeds and actions are heralded in the same spirit as mythology.  That is not to say that we see athletes as gods, but there is an argument to be made about the way that we tend to worship them from afar and offer them tributes.  We buy celebrity merchandise and much of Hercules is given over to this because in the 90s, when the film was made, the Brobdingnag hedonism of cashing in on a celebrity name – in particular merch aimed at Mr. Jordan – was a talked-about factor the culture.  In the movie this comes out of Hercules’ appeal to the masses after he defeats some monstrous threats, and the population becomes sycophantic to him in every respect, buying up every bit of merchandise culled from “Air-Hercs” to fast food tie-ins to personal appearance fees. 

This commentary in Hercules was part of the design.  Ron Clements and John Musker were drawn to this film because of the prospect of exploring the themes of superheroes and the ridiculous trend of celebrity endorsements.  Not only does it comment on the trend but it makes the film more palatable to audiences who regularly attend the multiplex.

The third inspiration is Rocky.  This is not a subtle implant – the movie actually contains a song called “Go the Distance”!  Hercules is told by Zeus that he can return to being a god if he can prove himself.  The Rocky motif is meant to place the audience in sympathy with the main character, a down-on-his-luck nobody who is given one chance to train in order to show his mettle.  The problem with this is that Hercules motivation is unclear.  Zeus sends his son to train under a gruff and ill-tempered trainer so that he can . . . well, it’s not really clear what he’s training for.  Rocky trained because he was challenged by the Heavyweight champ Apollo Creed in an exhibition match and wants one chance to prove himself.  Hercules . . . isn’t.  There’s nothing that he is aiming for.  Zeus tells him that he must prove himself so that his god-hood will be restored, and then we see him in an extended training montage (which features the film’s only nod to The Twelve Labors) but what exactly is he training to do?  He doesn’t know about Hades or his plan to release the Titans on Mount Olympus, so what is the motivation?

Hercules doesn’t have the meet-points of his motivation.  Most things that he comes up against in this movie really aren’t sought, they are laid at his feet by circumstance.  He kind of becomes the thing that things happen to.  So, if we push together the two fictional inspirations, Superman and Rocky, we have the story of a god-like being who is training his guts out but the movie forgets to imply a reason for him to even be training.

The opening of the film takes place while Hercules is still an infant and involves Zeus banishing the titans but incurring the wrath of his jealous brother Hades (the movie never puts it together that they are brothers, by the way).  Hades wants to rule Olympus but he must wipe out its population first and apparently can only do so with the help of the titans.  The Fates (three witches who can see the future) inform him that in 18 years the planets will align and he can find and free the titans.  None of these things actually make sense.  The alignment of the planets is just a useless clock device and doesn’t really have much of an effect.  The screenplay could have had Hades locating and releasing the titans just as easily without it.

None of this plot is ever imparted to Hercules who spends time on Earth seeking work as a hero and training for a purpose that, from his point of view, seems like a ‘just in case’.  By the time he has a showdown with Hades in the third act, he hasn’t been informed about anything so their meeting is kind of awkward and pointless and really tacked on.  Nothing in this story is moved or motivated by Hercules as he is completely ignorant of the larger plot until the movie is almost over.

Keeping Hercules ignorant of the larger plot not only deadens the drama in terms of the character but also lessens the impact that the plot will have on him.  If Hades takes over Olympus, Hercules won’t know why this is happening or really know what to do about it.  His only real point of drama occurs near the end of the film when his girlfriend Megara is crushed by a giant pillar, but this comes so late in the film and so out of left field that it feels more like a plot contrivance to drum up drama for the third act.  There’s no real build-up to this so the motivation feels off-kilter and unconvincing.

The plot holes are further complicated by the infallibility to which some of the characters are introduced.  Zeus informs his son that he can return to god-hood only if he proves himself worthy.  Why?  What is it about proving himself worthy that will make him worthy of being a god?  Wasn’t he already a god when he was born?  Who are Zeus and Hercules beholding to in regards to his status as a god?  What magical element is holding his god-like station at bay.

This infallibility device also extends to the aforementioned Fates, three witches who pass around a roving eyeball that can help them see the future.  Several times in their scenes they reiterate that “we know everything” but the movie overrides their prognostication because they don’t see that Hercules will get back his immortality nor can they impart how the story will end.  If they know everything, they should at least be able to impart upon Hades exactly the point by point outcome of this scenario.  They should know that Hades’ minions Pain and Panic failed in their mission to kill Hercules as a baby and failed to impart this knowledge back to Hades.  It’s a convenient plot device to which, the screenplay really doesn’t play fair.

This may all sound nit-picky but is only drawn up here to give you an indication of where the movie comes apart.  There is a great deal to like about this movie.  It is nice that, for once, the heroine is a wise-ass who isn’t looking for love and who has a past that explains why; plus, it’s interesting that when we meet her, she is working for the villain.  It is also nice that, for the first time since Aladdin, we get a comedy villain rather than just a serious mug with all dark and evil proclamations.  James Woods’ choice to play the character as a schmoozing Hollywood agent-type is really the best thing about the film.

It is also nice that the animators wanted to shift direction in terms of design by hiring editorial cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who is most famous for Pink Floyd: The Wall, to do the concept art.  His edgier angles on the characters are something new and different for a Disney film, which is the encapsulation of what made the Disney renaissance so influential.  The story may be clumsy and badly written, but the artistry employed it certainly not.  There’s good and bad here, it is a work of visual art at the service of a story that badly needed to be reworked.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.