Introduction: During the late 1980s and 1990s, I was a big Disney fan (though I still am). Films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and especially Beauty and the Beast were favorites of mine and I have fond memories of watching these movies on repeat. But after The Lion King (which I skipped seeing in theaters), I just wasn’t interested in the films Disney was offering at the time. The greatest films of the Disney Renaissance, as it were, were essentially dwindling as the studio offered up seemingly less prominent works such as the grossly historically inaccurate Pocahontas (1995) , an under-performing adaption of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and a quirky take on Greek mythology in Hercules (1997). Though I never saw Hercules back in the day, I became interested in it after watching reviews on it courtesy of the Nostalgia Critic (video contains spoilers) and the Nostalgia Chick. I always suspected that Hercules was an underdog movie, but is this take on Greek mythology really a colossal fail or a heroic hit? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: Hercules (1997) takes its own spin the Greek myth of the titular legendary strongman of the gods. In this version, Hercules (voiced by Tate Donovan) is the son of Zeus and Hera. But not all of the gods are pleased at Hercules’ birth. Hades (James Woods), Zeus’ brother, is determined to use a coming planetary alignment to his advantage: when the planets align, the prison confining the Titans will be broken and Hades wants to ensure that he’s the man in charge over the chaos. However, the Fates reveal to Hades that his plan won’t go smoothly as long as Hercules is alive; so Hades sends his minions to try to poison the tiny tot. But when Hercules fails to drink the last drop of a lethal potion, he remains alive but loses his status as a god, thus becoming mortal. Hercules remains on Earth and is raised by human parents who know something is different about their son. In time, they give him their blessing to go out into the wide world and uncover his true self. It doesn’t take long for Hercules to get the shock of his life when he finds out who he is and learns that the only way for his god state to be restored is to perform great deeds, thus proving he is a “true hero.” But what can a super-strong yet untrained former god possibly do to stop the fierce lord of the underworld?
My Take: I will give Disney credit for this – Hercules takes admirable risks in its execution, particularly in its story, visual style, and musical choices. Some of these risks pay off and bring a sense of unique charm while others don’t quite pan out but aren’t exactly disastrous.
Doing a movie based on Greek mythology marketed to kids is a risk. For those of us who are even vaguely versed in Greek myth, we know that most of these tales are rife with sexual exploits and bloody conflicts, making them tricky to fit into a story for younger audiences. So even though mythology aficionados will no doubt be offended by Hercules, I think the writers did what they could to make the story accessible for its target audience. While not seeing the more sordid parts of Hercules’ story didn’t bother me, I was disappointed that nothing more was done to try to foster an appreciation of Greek culture. It slightly saddens me when movies based on ancient cultures neglect important aspects of said culture. Disney did something similar in Pocahontas and it commits the same error here. I’m baffled why Disney didn’t do more to expose kids to Greek culture as opposed to filling the movie with American pop culture references with a Greek twist (such as Air Hercs rather than Air Jordans). This was a minor point with me, so I’m not going to belabor it; but it’s worth noting in case you think Hercules is rife with Greek cultural references – it’s quite the opposite, I’m afraid.
That’s not to say the movie fails. Hercules as a whole is a good, entertaining underdog hero story, something we’ve seen before but it’s the type of tale that holds a broad appeal. In fact, fans of the various incarnations of Superman might find striking similarities here and it’s of no coincidence. Most of our modern-day superheros stem from Greek, Roman, and other ancient myths. Hence, Hercules assumes the typical hero plot: he’s separated from his real origins, raised by “normal” parents, realizes he doesn’t fit in with that world, goes out to find his purpose, discovers the truth about himself, and then decides how to act on this truth. In Hercules’ case, at least as far as the film is concerned (not the myth), he tries to resume his godhood by performing deeds of great service, hoping to prove that he can be, as his father Zeus asserts, a “true hero.”
Plotwise, this type of story has been done before but that doesn’t mean Hercules is a total bore. It does its best to balance out moments of quiet reflection, colorful action, gentle comedy, and even romance (albeit it’s insta-love). Hercules, voiced by Tate Donovan, is a likable character who tries to do the right thing but isn’t perfect, which makes him likable. However, I stop short of saying he’s memorable as sometimes his wide-eyed wondering and bumbling antics grew a little tiresome, at least to an adult audience. Philoctetes (Phil for short) (voiced by Danny DeVito), Hercules’ trainer, serves as a comic distraction but his character actually impressed me in that he’s not present just for comic relief. Phil has been hardened by life to a degree, especially by the fact that none of the supposedly heroic folks who came to him for help have amounted to much. Thus, he lumps Hercules into the same category until the young man proves him wrong. Yet the two most memorable characters for me are Hercules’ eventual love interest, Megara (voiced by Susan Egan), and the chief antagonist, Hades (voiced by James Woods).
At first glance, you’d assume Megara (Meg for short) is slated to become the movie’s damsel in distress. While she enters the movie playing that role, it’s actually more of a spoof on those types of female characters. In reality, her distress is far deeper and more complex than getting captured by a monster and yelling for help. In a deal to try to save the life of a man she loved, Meg sells her soul to Hades and, in exchange, becomes his minion. However, we learn that her attempts to try to win the heart of her man failed, so Meg has all but sworn off the foolish notion of falling in love. But as the Fates would have it, Meg falls for Hercules who treats her nobly and genuinely cares for her. I will give credit to the writers that Meg is a good balance between a wise-cracking lass and a conflicted soul as she loves Hercules but is afraid of getting her heart broken again. That’s a take on a female character I don’t believe had been done before in a Disney film at this point as most of the ladies, from Cinderella to Ariel, never had any qualms about wanting to be in love. But for Meg it’s a risky step though she does ultimately decide whether or not to take that step, so her story isn’t left in limbo.
But easily the best character, and the one totally worth watching the movie for, is Hades, voiced by James Woods. While it would have been tempting to portray the dread god of the underworld as a dark, dour character, I’m glad that approach was scrapped. Instead, Hades is a fast-talking Svengali who delivers some of the movie’s best lines. Make no mistake, Hades is one seriously bad dude but he’s not one dimensional. He’s cunning, clever, and manipulative, but combines these traits with smartly timed humor and the wheeling-dealing sensibilities of a used car salesman. I love a villain who, aside from being morally unscrupulous, possesses a unique quirk, and Hades certainly fits that bill by being a powerful baddie yet enjoys kicking up his heels and having a good laugh at someone else’s expense. Not to mention he garners a handful of sympathy points as Zeus and the other gods seem to view Hades as a bit of a failure, which fuels his determination to take his brother down a few notches. All in all, this combination of a villainous mind and a playful demeanor works brilliantly. (Though one big plot hole for me has been this: if Hades is lord of the underworld, how would he not know that Hercules was still alive? My reasoning has been that Hades was so busy planning his take over that he didn’t have time to worry about who was or who wasn’t entering the underworld. But I’m slightly biased in Hades’ favor, so that’s my theory and I’m stickin’ to it.)
Visually, Hercules is a departure from Disney’s usual 90s style as it utilizes the designs of Gerald Scarfe, who also worked on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The film makes a great use of sharp angles and curved motifs that coincide with common patterns found in Greek art. Likewise, the palette employs bright, vivid colors that, at times, generate some very gorgeous landscapes. However, often the colors came across as a bit too cartoony and didn’t try to capture any sense of realism or tie into the film’s general tone. By way of example, other Disney films released during the 1990s seemed to adhere to a color scheme that fit with the story: The Little Mermaid emphasized blues and aquamarines to fit its ocean-themed story; Pocahontas and The Lion King used muted, organic colors to complement the films’ nature-focused feel; and Beauty and the Beast employed rich jewel toned blues, reds, and golds that worked nicely with its elegant settings. There really is no similar corresponding color scheme to Hercules other than brightness and fun, which I suppose works but I think it could have been more refined to give the film a more signature look.
This isn’t to say that Hercules is an ugly or even a boring movie to look at as some of the character designs are fun, creative, and fit with the character’s personalities. I also loved the visual designs of Mount Olympus and the Underworld as they sharply contrast each other and work for the personalities who reside there. Olympus (pictured left) truly is gorgeous and its usage of playful, unique geometry and jewel toned colors really work to establish this stunning home of the gods. In stark contrast, the Underworld (pictured right) is dark, gloomy, and features severe, sharp lines contained within a smooth space. This works to meld with Hades’ personality as he’s capable of being a smooth talker but his true nature cuts like a knife. However, when the movie’s action focuses on the more mundane environments, as it does for most of the time, it tends to resemble a run-of-the-mill children’s cartoon and less of a stunning piece of cinematic art.
The music for Hercules is decidedly different but became a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Again, much like the bold visual designs, the music takes an unexpected direction through its use of gospel as the principal genre. While the departure from grand, sweeping musical numbers is an admirable risk, its overall execution doesn’t fully pay off. For starters, most of the musical numbers (five out of nine, I believe) are sung either entirely by or accompanied by the Muses, who also serve as the narrators of the story. I sense what the film was going for was a take on the idea of the Greek chorus, a dramatic device used in Greek theater, which is fine and it at least makes an attempt. But just as the film doesn’t pay much homage to ancient Greece, neither does its music. The movie doesn’t add Greek cultural flavor but instead incorporates a modern musical style that, both lyrically and musically, is slightly bland as well as perplexing. For instance, three songs performed by the Muses are entitled “The Gospel Truth.” While this undoubtedly refers to the style of music being used (i.e. gospel), the phrase gospel truth, which refers to anything that’s undeniably true, gets its terminology from the four Gospels of Christian Scripture, which wouldn’t have even been penned at the time of the Greek myths. So its usage here is a bit odd.
The rest of the movie’s music is mediocre and just misses the mark as, unlike past Disney films of the same decade, Hercules boasts no memorable songs. Most of the Muse-led tracks, while catchy, tend to bleed together in terms of style and only serve to relate backstory to the audience, so they’re not really tunes you would catch yourself humming to later on. The movie’s theme song, as it were, “Go the Distance,” is a typical pop ballad that does have its lyrics in the right place in terms of encouraging listeners to persevere but ultimately just recycles the follow-your-dreams cliche. Probably the most notable song is Megara’s solo, “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love),” which tones down the loud gospel music for more of a smooth Motown sound, which also seems vastly out of place. But the song lends itself to developing Meg’s character, so for that it at least accomplishes more than what the other songs in the film seek to do, not to mention its vocal arrangement is fun and carefree.
In the end, Hercules offers up some enjoyable moments chiefly through its principle villain and some of its secondary cast. Likewise, its visuals present some unique imagery and, at times, at least try push design boundaries. However, my sentiments towards this movie are rather middle of the road.
Is Hercules a bad movie? Not at all. Is it creative? Yes, most of the time. Is it classic Disney cinema?
I’m going to say maybe, mainly because while it does take risks, nothing stands out as particularly memorable aside from the unique depiction of Hades. While the lack of anything truly noteworthy doesn’t automatically make Hercules horrible, the sometimes baffling stylistic and musical choices, as well as a been-there/seen-that approach to the story, make it an okay pick – one that’s not grossly horrendous but one that is decidedly far from being heroically stupendous.
All of this being said, and as a quick sidebar, I have been watching the “Hercules” Disney 1990s cartoon show on YouTube. To my surprise, all of the things that didn’t seem to gel in the movie actually work here. The design elements and color palette, while not as artistic as in the film, work as the television show is decidedly more cartoony than the movie. The show’s rapid-fire pacing also complements the overall design; and the characters, while deviating from their original mythological origins and incorporating Greek-a-fied American pop culture references, are still fun and charming. The gospel music motif is still in play but because this is a 20 minute show, we’re not treated to a ton of songs (just the opening theme and maybe another song embedded in a given episode). What also impressed me was that the show managed to snag some of the original voice talents, so rather than getting sound-a-likes for most of the main cast, the show retained Donovan and Woods as voice actors.
Content Breakdown: Hercules was given a G rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – None, save for a few exclamatory “by the gods,” “oh my gods,” and similar declarations, but these comments are very sporadic.
Violence – While not overtly violent, there are some scenes of combat where monstrous creatures are slain or scenes of peril where people are placed in danger, though such scenes would probably trouble only the youngest of viewers. Hercules slays a hydra by severing its heads and finally its neck; as he does so, green slime pours out and there is a quick shot of the creature’s severed neck (again, showing green slime oozing from the wound but no graphic images of blood, muscles, bone, etc.). Likewise, the three Fates share a single eyeball, which they take turns popping in and out of their sockets for comedic effect. Lastly, we see creatures tear up the land and cause general mayhem, but these moments are more perilous than frightening.
Sexual Material – None. All of the female characters wear togas, some of which reveal minimal cleavage and/or are slit up the leg to the thigh; however, the garments aren’t designed to be intentionally titillating. Elsewhere, while traveling through a big city, Hercules and Phil are accosted by a man who opens up a trench coat (the immediate assumption is that he’s flashing them) only to reveal that he’s carrying watch-like sundials and asks if they’re interested in buying one. Lastly, some girls fight over Hercules when he comes to visit their town but it’s just a swoon-fest and nothing sexual.
Thematic Elements – Death is a reoccurring theme thanks to the presence of Hades and his minions. A few scenes show Hades in the Underworld, complete with the river Styx filled with moaning souls and a cesspool where the deceased reside. One character dies in a non-graphic fashion but is brought back to life as the person’s soul is retrieved from the Underworld. Overall, these moments might be frightening for exceptionally young viewers who will probably not have a good context for what they’re seeing (meaning if they don’t know Greek mythology, they won’t be familiar with the people, places, etc. depicted on screen).
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Hercules stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Recommended, but probably only for the oldest of children (over age 6); otherwise, I doubt the concept of Greek myth would make much sense to or even be appreciated by young children.
Older Children & Teens – Recommended, especially if they’re looking for Disney films from the 90s other than the more well-known films, which might already be familiar due to over-exposure through the years. This one at least offers a change of pace in terms of its story (as a myth retelling) and design.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for persons looking for an old-school Disney animated flick that isn’t based on a fairy tale and that uses some unique visual styles, or for anyone nostalgic for some 90s Disney.
Hercules left me feeling a bit ambivalent, if I’m being honest. It’s not a terrible film as it has many bright and shining moments, but some of the execution fell a bit flat, especially in terms of its plotting, music, and some of the artistic decisions. Essentially, it brings up the rear of the Disney Renaissance and struggles to find its footing in the wake of large, classic Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. One truly worthwhile aspect of the film is James Woods’ performance as Hades, which is an absolutely blast to watch and saves the movie from becoming a forgettable kids flick. So on a scale of “Zero to Hero,” I’d have to give Hercules a middle of the road grade.