Hercules (1997)

Disney have obviously been at the forefront of adapting, sanitising and/or pillaging myth and fairytales* for many moons now. And it seems, especially commercially-speaking, that when they keep the stories happy, and ensure that it’s very easy to understand who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’, people are pleased.

However, I feel as though audiences aren’t too willing to let the company stray very far from that formula.

And part of me thinks Hercules might have been an early step toward less binary representations of good and evil, and maybe pointed toward an attempted change. It’s a change that I think comes to at least one end point with Atlantis. (Especially if I include Treasure Planet in that progression).

Hercules is probably closer to Aladdin in some ways, and watching it again much later, I can see why it did the usual big numbers. This time around, I probably focused on different things, especially the artwork and character design, though the story is a fun adventure and I think the liberties it takes with the family of Gods works quite well to make things a little more kid-friendly.

You also get plenty of exaggeration in character movement and faces, to keep that slapstick front and centre. As you might expect with Disney, there are also plenty of ‘modern’ pop culture references, with the Air Jordan stuff working best for me.

I want to come back to where I see a reasonably non-typical Disney character moving the needle toward morally grey, but for now I’m sticking with the visuals. I loved the sense of scale in the film – there’s a whole heap of extreme wide shots and towering structures, stunning locations and colours, typically beautiful Disney stuff.

But there’s definitely a Mediterranean look to the countryside and the character designs, which were based on work by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. I remember him most from Pink Floyd’s The Wall and you can definitely see his touch even in the finished, more rounded/tidier Disney designs. I’m pretty sure this is a sketch he did for Hades:

To switch to the cast for a moment, Danny Devito stood out and so did James Woods as Hades. Not sure what the actor was like back in the late 1990s but he seems to get attention for different things nowadays. Susan Egan (who I usually associate with Lin from Spirited Away), is also great as Meg; and that’s who I wanted to mention earlier.

Meg is a character with motivations that are not so clear cut at first. I’m not sure how younger viewers would have responded to her, but in a way she becomes the most interesting character in the film and it feels like she’s one example of cautious steps by Disney directors to shift away from the ‘kids’ category, for at least some of the time.

In any event, I enjoyed Hercules and one of my only concerns was the Muses… On one hand, the designs and animation upon the clay pots were great but the gospel didn’t work for me because it seemed somehow borderline tokenism? I dunno, can’t figure it out yet. Maybe I’m off-base, and I’d like to be wrong there.

4 Stars

* And other stories, of course.

11 thoughts on “Hercules

  1. I enjoyed the things you mentioned, design and animation, but I found the Christianization of Hercules to be a bit too much off point. If you are referencing to mythology in an animated movie, I do not expect Disney to follow the Greek myth, but at least, they shouldn’t have make it that much contemporary in terms of the depiction of romantic love for instance. But it is a Disney movie, all in all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, those changes really stood out for me too.

      I wonder what an animated adaption of some of the classical Greek myths would be like in someone else’s hands? (I sometimes see Zeus as a bit of an antagonist, for one.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s an interesting idea. But I can think of a studio big enough to finance it which could/want to realize it. Producing stereotyped versions of heroes, mythological or fairy tale ones works well with the mainstream audience. It needs something other-wordly yet familiar.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t seen Hercules in ages. In hindsight, I didn’t expect this to be accurate to the myths for better or worse. There’s also a joke that I’ve said to Disney fans where I call Megara one of my favorite Disney princesses because Megara in the original story was the daughter of the king of Crete, so she should count. For some bizarre reason, she’s not part of the Disney Princess Breakfast Club [patent pending]. Wait, her and Lin were played by the same person? WHAAAAAAT?!

    I heard this movie got a ton of hate in Greece when this came out which I assume has to do with the inaccuracies.

    Interesting point about the Muses. I heard they were a reference to Little Shop of Horrors especially with the Motown-throwback music. I have mixed feelings about the Muses in and out of context of the story or historical settings. They were only there for music and exposition, so they didn’t have agency like the other characters. There’s certainly an argument for tokenism which I could see. Sure, in ancient Greece would’ve been one of the most diverse countries in Europe since you did have Africans living there as well as them having connections to Ethiopia (See: Homer’s stories where that country is name-dropped), but that would be giving Disney WAY too much credit. I could also see them having the Muses as lip service even with some of the complaints of racism in the 90s. They weren’t my favorite characters anyway. I do find it strange that Disney could have Black characters in a movie that takes place in ancient Greece, but wouldn’t do so for both of their movies in the animated canon that take place in Africa, let alone waiting until the 00s to have Black princesses with Nadia’s clone AKA Kida (despite not being in the aforementioned breakfast club) and Tiana.

    This was an interesting review. I remember watching this in theaters when this came out when I was a kid. I also would’ve never guessed that someone from The Wall movie worked on this project.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t realise that re: Disney overlooking Meg, boo!

      Yeah, same actress, though I haven’t noticed her in heaps of other shows, I should investigate. Feels like she’d have been in a lot of dubs maybe.

      I think you’re right re: tokenism and the risk of giving Disney too much credit. In a way, the more I think about it, the more the music choice feels like one of several elements pulled from the era in a similar manner, especially when combined with all the Michael Jordan references.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know, right? I may not be a Disney fan, but even I’ll admit that Meg should’ve been promoted like the other princesses because she is one in the actual source material. Not only that, but she has more personality and she’s GASP! has an ALTO voice! That is an anti-cliche on so many levels since every princess is in the soprano range. I was in choir, so that background is showing. Haha!

        That is so crazy how she was in that movie’s dub and I never realized it. Maybe she’s in a bunch of other movies I’ve seen, but never noticed.

        Thanks. There’s definitely moments that scream the 90s like the MJ references you mentioned. That or making obvious references to other movies like The Karate Kid. Okay, that’s an 80s flick, but the 90s kids saw it during their childhood at some point, too.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Cool – I hadn’t paid attention to that re: her vocal range in comparison, yeah. Gives her a more grown up feel, perhaps?

          I hope so she’s done plenty of other things, I know she’ also Gina in ‘Porco Rosso’ 😀

          (Yep, agree re: Karate Kid, definitely)

          Liked by 1 person

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