In response to people claiming that Disney had become “Too serious” with Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this movie was made. This movie is the opposite of serious, in every sense of the word.
If you are familiar with Greek mythology, do yourself a favor and pretend that you don’t know anything about it when you watch this movie. It enhances the experience. If you compare this movie to the Greek myth of Hercules (or actually Heracles was his Greek name…), you will drive yourself insane. We had to do that in 7th grade. We were learning about mythology and we actually watched this movie to see if it had the same elements. This movie, simply put, does not follow the actual myth. If it did, it would have been more messed up than anything Disney’s ever done. So I know that this movie doesn’t follow the myth, and personally, I don’t care. (My husband refuses to watch this cause he’s one of those people that can’t stand it… He said he’d get mad.)
So what’s Disney’s take on the story of Hercules? I’m glad you asked.
We get a quick backstory on the Titans and how Zeus trapped them (this becomes important later) before we meet Hercules as a baby. He’s Zeus and Hera’s son, and they’re having a party in his honor. Hades, the God of the Underworld and Zeus’s brother, pops in to size up the kid before returning to the Underworld, where he meets with three sisters called The Fates to figure out if Hercules is going to ruin his plan to take over Mt. Olympus (or, in his words: “Is this kid gonna mess up my hostile takeover bid or what?”) The Fates can see into the future and turns out Hercules will screw it up. In order to stop that from happening, Hades sends his henchmen, Pain and Panic to turn the kid mortal and kill him with a little concoction he just happens to have lying around.
Pain and Panic kidnap Hercules and get him to drink the elixir, but are interrupted by two humans and Hercules doesn’t drink the last drop, letting him retain his God-like strength. The two that happened upon the baby adopt him and raise him.
We then cut to Hercules as a teenager, where he doesn’t fit in because of his crazy strength. Frustrated, his parents tell him that he was adopted and Hercules travels to the temple of Zeus to ask the God where he really belongs. The statue of Zeus comes to life upon seeing his son and tells him the truth and tells him that if he can prove himself a true hero then his Godhood will be restored and he can return to Mt. Olympus.
Hercules, now joined by his childhood (babyhood?) friend Pegasus head off to find Philoctites, or Phil, who is a trainer of heroes. He’s hesitant but eventually takes Hercules on. We get a song montage and suddenly Hercules is older and stronger. They head off to Thebes to prove himself, but on the way they meet Megura (Meg) who seems like a damsel in distress. After saving her, they head to Thebes.
Turns out Meg is working for Hades (although not by choice, she sold her soul to him to save the person she loved), who upon hearing the name Hercules freaks out and decides that he has to destroy him before the planets align and his plan can be set in motion. He sends a Hydra to kill him, but Hercules takes this as his moment to prove to the citizens of Thebes he’s a hero. After a rough patch, he defeats the Hydra, angering Hades but pleasing the citizens of Thebes. Over another song montage we see him destroy monster after monster that Hades throws at him as he grows in popularity.
Hades grows upset and sends Meg to figure out what his weakness is. The two go on a date, have a good time, and Meg realizes that she’s in love with him. But she’s been burned before and refuses to admit it. Hades reads through her and realizes Hercules’ weakness is Meg. Phil figures out that Meg is working for Hades and thinks she really doesn’t love her and tells Hercules, who doesnt believe him. As a result, Phil leaves. Hades meets with Hercules and manages to get him to relinquish his strength for 24 hours, so long as Meg won’t get hurt. Hades releases the titans to march on Olympus and sends the cyclops to finish off Hercules.
Battles are fought, people die (sort of…) and Hercules’ Godhood is restored after the learns what makes a true hero. But in the end he gives it all up to be with the woman he loves. (oh Disney…)
I’ve found that this movie tends to be really divisive on a lot of its points. People are either fans, or they simply can’t stand this movie. There are few who seem to be kinda in the middle. So where am I? I lean more on the “I love it” side. I don’t love this movie, but I think it’s entertaining, hilarious, and deeper than it seems to be. Not deep like Hunchback or Fox & the Hound, but for a movie that seems like the Genie from Aladdin on steroids, it’s relatively grounded.
I want to talk about what I mean by that. I talked a lot in my Aladdin review about my issues with the Genie and pop culture. This movie has pop culture references as well, but I have absolutely no problem with them here. Why? because in Aladdin, we had a serious world and a serious story. The Genie seemed random and crazy. There really was NO reason for him to be doing those pop culture references. Here, in Hercules, this movie establishes itself as a bit off-kilter and strange before it even puts in a modern reference. When they are put in, it’s part of the story or it’s for humor, but not completely in your face, and they’re not quite totally modern. This movie strikes a good balance, and the references fit in this movie because it is in itself a bit bizarre. Things are still done like they would be in ancient Greece if they had the idea for action figures or something akin to Air Jordans…
This movie also brings out its bizarre uniqueness through its animation. Now this movie is a stylized movie in the vein of Sleeping Beauty. We have characters who are clearly cartoon. There is no attempt anywhere to look realistic. And this movie really likes swirls. It’s in Hercules’ ears and every cloud of dust. The animation on this movie is great simply because it’s different. This movie knew what it wanted to be and executed it with pizazz.
We can also see this with the music in this movie. And again, this music, like the movie, is very divisive in terms of fans. This music is heavily influenced by gospel. If that seems weird in a Greek movie, I guess it is – but that’s what this movie is going for. While we do have songs sung by characters in this movie (Hercules, Phil and Meg all get a song) all the others are sung by a quintet of women that are supposed to represent the Muses.
Save for “Go the Distance,” all these songs are filled with an incredible energy because of these ladies. We played a medley of these songs in middle school, so I of course have an affinity for them. Yes the gospel is weird, but I love it. I love all the songs. Even the corny “Go the Distance.” It’s a great song. It conveys the wants of our main character and has a great message. “I won’t say I’m in Love” and “One Last Hope” and “Zero to Hero” and “Gospel Truth,” Geez. The first two make those characters deeper. The Latter two help with the story. These songs fit this movie perfectly. Love them. If you’re ever in a bad mood, listen to these songs. You can’t help but sing along and smile.
Alright, so we get it: this movie is upbeat and unique and bizarre. I have one more example: The message. Sure every Disney movie has a message. Normally they have more than one if you look close, but one that they tend to focus on. Typically it’s something about acceptance, being yourself, not judging others, etc. But then there’s this little movie. This movie actually tackles something that no other Disney movie has done: What makes a true hero? (ok, there’s also don’t give up on your dreams, yadda yadda).
We, like our titular character, don’t know what it is till the end, same as him. “A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.” Geez, go Disney! What a great unique message! It’s refreshing not to have a rehash of an old message like they tend to do so much. Good job.
The characters in this movie are going to help me transition from what I like in this movie to what I dislike. As a whole, these characters are just…. blah (with a few glaring exceptions). I’ll explain, but let’s start with who I like.
HADES. Dear sweet lord (or under lord), is this character hilarious. We’ve never had a villain quite like Hades, and this type only seems to surface in these unique Disney comedies (I’m thinking Yzma here!). In all honesty, I watch this movie for two things: The songs and Hades. That’s it. James Woods does his voice, and apparently ad-libbed a lot of his lines. You can kinda tell because every word that comes out of his mouth is comic gold. The delivery is genius. His jokes are hilarious. When he gets angry it’s hilarious. Every time this character is on screen it’s amazing. I can see how a lot of people would think he’s annoying, I really do. I guess it’s kinda like the Genie, except I’m reversed. This type of humor I like. Again, it’s refreshing to have a villain who’s funny. Yes he’s also hell bent on dominating olympus, but he’s not extremely evil. You almost get the feeling he’s doing this because he’s bored, and has tried it before. He’s an over the top villain for an over the top movie, and in my mind he’s perfect.
The other characters I like are actually mostly supporting characters. That’s Phil and Meg. We’ll start with Phil. I love that he’s a satyr that doesn’t at all look like you think Satyrs look like. He’s a Hero trainer who’s been burned before with all of his former apprentices: Jason, Achilles, Perseus, Theseus, etc. He’s sarcastic and argumentative but also cares a lot for Hercules. You can see the hope in him. He’s voiced by Danny DeVito, who will always and forever be this roll for me (NOT the freaking Lorax…).
Then there’s Meg. Again, I can see how a lot of people might not like her. She is kinda annoying. But here’s what I like about her. It’s refreshing that the love interest in a Disney movie is actually aligned with the villain. Ok so it’s not of her own accord but still. Before you know that it’s kinda like “whoa, where’s this gonna go?” Then you learn of her “Deal with the Devil” and suddenly she’s a deeper character. You understand her attitude. You understand her stand-offish nature and strong persona. She has a wall inside of her that only comes down after Hercules has been so genuine with her. She’s changed her tune and no longer wants to hurt him and cares about him enough to risk her life (literally) to rescue him.
So let’s talk about Hercules for a second. He has a lot of really good qualities. He’s a genuine nice guy. All he wants is to prove himself and go home. He’s sweet. That’s really what it is about him. He’s nice; overly nice. Like – no way there is a person who is really this nice in the world (although I do know one…). To me, that gets a bit annoying. Also… Hercules seems really dumb. Disney seemed to make a character that was all muscle and heart, but no brains. I mean really. Maybe that’s just how I prefer my guys, but Hercules is actually my least favorite protagonist of a Disney movie EVER. I don’t hate him… I just… I don’t like him. The worst part is I almost feel bad for not liking him, because he seems like such a likable guy. ugh. I’ll watch the movie and be happy about it, but to me, he’s not a strength of the movie. He’s just…. blah.
Along with Hercules we have Pegasus, proving that bros existed long before Barney Stinson ever put on a suit. Seriously, their relationship is completely like that. Which works fine, cause Pegasus is dumber than Hercules. They work well for each other. And some of the things Pegasus does are funny (thank GOD they didn’t make him talk…). He’s like a stupid bird but also does dog things? I love that Disney thinks Horses are just big dogs.
Are other really small characters, to me, are just kinda like Hercules. They’re just…. there. Zeus seems just as stupid as Hercules. Pain and Panic have some funny lines, but I’ve always thought of them a more annoying duo more than anything. Although watching it this time I didn’t get as annoyed. Maybe they’re growing on me.
The last thing I want to talk about is the comedy in this movie, because this is one of Disney’s only real crazy comedic movies. Sure every Disney movie has comedy, but not to the level of this one. This was the first in its own sort of class of Disney movie: Zany and incredibly hilarious. And you know what? The comedy actually hits its mark. Watching it this much later, it’s not dated. The jokes are appropriate and not “bathroom humor.” I really don’t know how to describe this comedy. It’s just GOOD. It’s smart humor. How they came up with some of this stuff is beyond me. There are only a few Disney movies that make me laugh as much as this one. These people did a great job.
There’s a few other things I have issue with in this movie:
~ Hades had that potion that turned Hercules mortal. Why didn’t he just use it on Zeus? seems like a much easier way to win at world domination.
~Hercules takes the fact he’s a God really well. He just kinda goes “A God?” and then collapses into his oversized father’s statue hands.
~ I always talk about how good the CGI is in Disney movies. Well… not this one. The Hydra is CGI, and you can tell. It’s kinda a shame that the Wildebeest look better in a movie that was 3 years older than the Hydra. It’s actually kinda distracting.
~ Meg dies by sacrificing herself to save Hercules. When this happens he gets his strength back. Why? because the deal made with Hades is now Null and void because Meg got hurt. We literally heard that 10 minutes prior, but Meg has to explain it to Hercules as she’s dying because he can’t remember. Either this character is really dumb, or Disney is assuming we are.
~The voice of Hercules is Tate Donovan. Tate Donovan had a stint on Friends as Joshua. I don’t know why anyone wants to know this, but I’m telling you because I love friends and always knew that voice sounded familiar!!
I really enjoy this movie. It’s a good movie to put on if you need a good laugh, or a reason to sing along or dance. It’s a movie to put on when you’re feeling down. It may not be the best thing in the world, but it will certainly put a smile on your face. Even if it does completely screw up Greek Mythology.
I give Hercules (1997) a 4 out of 5. Solid entertainment.
Next up: Mulan (1998)