The Initial Release (1997)
Walt Disney studios in the 1990s was going through a Renaissance period. Audiences had dwindled in its previous eras, forcing the studio to invest in new directions with their animation.
Fresh faces with fresh ideas led the charge of the most profitable string of movies in animation history.
Six massive hits notched on their belt lit up the box office. The seventh on their list was Hercules, released in 1997 to a market of people who were ravenous for more Disney productions at the time. The concept was a no-brainer. An adaptation of a story known by all. A particular specialty of Disney was to take these widely heard of stories and create their own narrative, carefully reconstructed to sell to a family demographic. Hercules opened promisingly and did earn an estimated $250 million worldwide. However, the unfortunate critical feedback of the movie led it to be considered a disappointment for the studios themselves.
My Full Experience (2015)
Sometimes it can take a herculean level of strength to admit when you are wrong. My stance on Hercules was a stubborn one. I had missed the cinema release and I was forced to rent it on DVD several months after it opened. The excitement for it was palpable. The oncoming letdown was swift.
Unlike most my age, there was a sense of expectation when it came to movies centered around Greek mythology. My father raised me on a diet of the many legendary voyages of Sinbad and grand scale monster spectacles such as Clash of The Titans. When dissecting Disney’s Hercules alongside these examples, you can probably see why I wasn’t too fond of the film first time around. The expectation I held was for the promise of an animated epic showcasing the greatest hero in all of Greek lore as a beacon of bravery. Judging it from this perspective was an error on my part. Hercules is a different breed of movie than expected. The story was a known one, naturally. Tales of Hercules’ strength were used as a basis for what we know to be modern superheroes. In Disney’s endeavour, we are given the origin tale of how Hercules came to be a demi-god. Hades (voiced by James Woods) and Zeus are two conflicting gods locked in an eternal rivalry. Zeus lives atop Mount Olympus amongst the other gods, who he leads. Hades lives in the underworld, a place where lost souls go when they die.
Although he enjoys his moniker of Lord of The Underworld, Hades’ overall goal is to take over Olympus and rule in the stead of Zeus — whom he deems unworthy. Four Titans of legend who are primarily famed for being defeated by Zeus are the key to Hades’ plan; unleashing them in order to watch them take a measure of revenge against the one who imprisoned them. A guarantee was given to Hades that this would indeed give him power over Olympus. The one catch being that if the son of Zeus were to fight (Aka Hercules) Hades would fail. Henceforth, our plot leads to a potion being force-fed to a young Hercules as he is kidnapped by minions of the Underworld. Fortunetly for the young infant, he retains his godlike strength after consuming most of the potion but not all of it. The small child overpowers his oppressors in a show of strength. A wandering couple finds this redheaded scamp, deciding then and there to adopt him.
A journey from zero to hero sets the pace for a highly comedic adventure offset by a bizarrely jovial soundtrack. Previously, the main problem I had with Hercules was its jarring blend of Gospel and Motown music serving as backing track to a world of mythology. Traditionally, this variety of film is underscored by orchestral music that complements the destruction of incredible beasts fighting man. Hercules is a unique entity in its mix. It is admirable in its daring concept.
Upon my recent revisiting, I found a wonderful appreciation for this inventive choice. The pacing throughout is quick to match the styling of a long musical that tells snippets of a hero’s tale. If you think about the three singing muses as the narrators, you begin to realise that the story fits as a legend because it’s being told offhandedly by way of song. To put it simply — the comedy tone works because the story itself is a loose idea of how these muses believe the story took place. Segments of Hercules’ life are skipped to make room for the triumphant moments and the signs that lead to him becoming a hero. When you deconstruct the story in this regard; there is a level of admiration that has to be given to the writers.
While Hercules himself is a fairly standard protagonist, the supporting cast that inhabits this world are extraordinary. The one always brought up is James Woods as Hades, who plays the role impeccably as a loveable yet sinister shadow. Less praise is often showered on the wonderful Danny DeVito as Hercules’ Trainer, Phil, and Megara, who is voiced by Susan Egan. DeVito, being a comedy veteran, shines a light on the fact that the dialogue is very cheesy, but can be delivered well with the right person saying it. Phil is a lovable grump that drags our hero to be the person he was always supposed to be. Megara is the central love interest who brings a layer of sass not often seen in animated films. Susan Egan‘s portrayal of Meg is natural, witty in a dry sense and, most of all, realistic. These three characters as a pairing deliver emotional as well as hilarious scenes.
My somewhat pretentious younger self has shed his grievances with the idea of this movie. It’s genuinly fun. In contrast to many Disney productions, it is assuredly overlooked due to the nature of it not being an overtly serious story. It’s important to remember that Disney can tug your heart strings, but they can equally make you forget your worries and that’s what Hercules does quite well.
A cornball adventure in the setting of Greece was never supposed to work. They somehow pulled it off. They did it greatly. A classic in a different sense!