25 years have passed since Disney’s cartoon Herculeswas released in 1997. The film was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the team behind hits like The little mermaid and Aladdin. The film is a loose adaptation of myths about the Greek hero Hercules (Tate Donovan) going from outcast to hero, falling in love with Meg (Susan Egan) and defeating Hades (James Woods).
Hercules did well at the box office — if not as well as other Disney projects — and received praise for its cast, while critics were divided on the music and design. Even though Hercules didn’t live up to the hype of previous Disney releases Aladdin and The Lion King, has grown in popularity over time and is now considered one of Disney’s underrated films. Let’s revisit the original animated version with a live-action remake of the film just announced.
Music is a central part of many Disney films, with songs that have survived for decades. the songs inside Hercules feature music by Alan Menken – who composed many of Disney’s hits – and lyrics by David Zippel. Although the film’s soundtrack doesn’t have any big hits like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion Kingit contains unique songs with different genres that create many memorable performances.
A unique aspect of the film’s score is the decision to use the Muses – classic characters from Greek mythology – as a Supremes-style girl group who serve as the film’s Greek chorus and tell the story through song. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Menken said he wanted a classic Greek approach to the songs, but the directors encouraged a gospel approach since the film focused on gods. The result is the muses, bursting with energetic numbers like “Zero to hero” and “The Truth of the Gospel.” Her numbers contrast with songs like “go the distance,” a traditional Disney song. Meg’s solo also takes a different approach; instead of a typical love ballad, she sings about refusing to admit her love for Hercules – well-rounded soundtrack but lacks cohesion.
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To create the film, a team of animators studied Greek mythology and design, even taking trips to Greece and Turkey to do research. Disney used some computer work but hadn’t yet fully transitioned to digital 3D animation, so the film consists largely of hand-drawn imagery resembling classical Greek art style, inspired by illustrations by English animator Gerald Scarfe. This is evident in the Muses forming part of the art on a vase and in pillars and in The Childhood of Hercules with a wall designed like a fresco painting. The film also brings the Temple of Zeus to life and imagines the underworld. Mount Olympus is particularly impressive, its bright golden colors contrasting against the blue sky.
The character designs are also different from what Disney had typically done up to that point. As the central character, Hercules had a different body type from all of the other male leads, with a design showing his true transformation from zero to hero as he grows stronger. The gods also stand out and appear larger than life and more majestic. The scene on Mount Olympus shows them all in bright colors, with shimmering outlines to emphasize their power. They all have different silhouettes; Zeus is round and muscular while Hades is sharp and angular. Although some critics found the animation and design to be simpler and less impressive compared to other films, it effectively brings Hercules and his world to life.
The film revolves around four main characters: Hercules, Meg, Hades and Phil (Danny DeVito), the satyr who trains Hercules. Essentially taking on the role of a Disney princess, Hercules fulfills many of the princess tropes: he wants to prove his worth; He has an animal sidekick in Pegasus and he has a love interest. Donovan does a great job bringing Hercules to life and balancing the awkwardness with the exploits. Meg’s character has a more complex background than love interest characters typically have, as she is enslaved by Hades and bears the pain of love failed, and Egan captures both her sarcasm and her softer moments.
But the most memorable are Hades and Phil, who bring in most of the film’s humor. DeVito plays Phil as a grumpy old man who still cares about Hercules. Woods turns Hades into a fast-talking, smart villain who’s even charismatic. In both parts, a lot of actors shuffled around before casting DeVito and Woods, and the movie is better for that. The directors cited the screwball comedies of the 1930s as inspiration, and this wacky humor is created by the actors. With a simple plot, the characters carry the film. We spend a lot of time with the main characters, and the actors all excel at making their roles real and memorable.
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The plot is known from a Disney film: young Hercules is an outcast who dreams of more and sets out on a quest for greatness. Through trial and error, he becomes the hero he was born to be, defeats the villain, and gets his happy ending with Meg, whom he frees from Hades’ control. It’s a simple plot, and while there are exciting and emotional moments when Hercules kills the Hydra or thinks Meg has betrayed him, it doesn’t reach the dramatic depths of other Disney films. In addition, the directors opted for a cleaner, simplified depiction of the mythology of Hercules. They omitted that he was born, for example, after an affair between Zeus and a mortal, and instead gave Hercules the status of demigod by tricking Hades into stripping him of his divinity. While this makes for a simpler film, it removes the complexity and depth of important parts in the story of Hercules and is not a historically accurate representation.
Nonetheless, the film is a lot of fun. With Hercules’ rise to fame, the film treats him like a modern day sports star, putting his face on everything and giving him his own model of shoes. It’s a clever, self-referential approach to celebrity and marketing. Hercules has a simple approach in its myth and story but makes it stand out with strong characters and a great cast. While it might not be considered one of Disney’s best, it remains a fun film for everyone to enjoy.