Original Release: June 15, 1997
Runtime: 93 Minutes
Directed By: John Musker and Ron Clements
Notable Actors: Tate Donovan, Joshua Keaton, Roger Bart, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan and Rip Torn
Guys guys! Where have you been? I’m so excited. I have to tell you about this movie I just watched. Let’s get this out of the way now. Hercules was one of my favorite animated movies growing up. It came out right around the time that I ended my ‘Dinosaur Phase,’ (although honestly, no one ever really ends their Dinosaur Phase) and just as I was entering my ‘Mythology is so cool!’ phase. It’s got action. It’s got epic music. It’s got a completely new animation style. In truth, Hercules is the perfect film to follow The Hunchback of Notre Dame as it is the exact opposite of ‘dark.’ Get ready for a high flying, sword swinging, goat-man wedgying adventure. Today is all about Hercules.
Hercules originally was pitched by animator Joe Haidar. Now famous directors Ron Clements and John Musker were busy working on their adaptation of Treasure Planet. Sadly, everyone’s favorite jerk face, Jeffery Katzenberg didn’t care for planets with treasure and canned the project. Clements and Musker quickly joined onto Hercules. Taking the treatment by Haidar, and actual Greek mythology, they went to work on developing a script.
A big hang up became that Hercules becomes half human and half mortal because of an adulterous affair. The creators thought this might be a little bit much for a Disney film, so they started working on a new plan to achieve the same outcome. Musker would go on to note that part of the excitement around the project was that it was their opportunity to do a super hero film. Nowadays those are a dime a dozen, but this was a pre-Disney-Marvel era.
Much like with Hunchback, the team set off for Greece and Turkey to get inspired by the architecture and the sights and sounds. They believed that the stark contrast of Olympus, the Underworld and Earth was something that gave them the opportunity for great visuals. Artist Gerald Scarfe was invited to the Disney studios for a tour. Noticing that his style was oddly similar to those found on Greek vases and pots, he was hired as the production designer. He was asked to deliver about a dozen sketches and ended up making around 700, sending the studio a mere 32 of these. In researching this film, I’ve found that a big point of contention is Scarfe’s artwork. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that the style is wholly original and makes Hercules stand out from all other Disney flick. Personally, I love it!
Before we move onto impressions, we need to discuss the casting of Hades. After Danny DeVito was cast, he asked about Hades. The directors were having a tough time with the character. DeVito told them to hire Jack Nicholson. The studio offered Nicholson $500,000 but he wanted around 15 million and also a cut of all Hades merchandise. The studio countered with a MUCH lower offer and Nicholson declined. They were back to square one. Many other actors would audition for the part, including John Lithgow, Kevin Spacey, Phil Hartmann and Martin Landau, before they finally found James Woods who played the character completely different. He was hired and thank goodness for that.
Hercules is a mile a minute fun-fest. Everything about this film is fast and crazy. It comes at a time when we’ve just had two films which are darker and a bit more serious. That makes Pegasus showing up to headbutt Herc even more hilarious. Hercules is a fantastic character. Essentially this is his coming of age story, but it’s great to see this pull between Earth, Olympus and the Underworld. I also like that while he has the powers of a God, he deals with a very human issue. Namely, he counts material successes as true heroism. Here we have a battle between idealism and cynicism. He’s also extremely endearing in that he really is the scrawny nerdy kid who just so happens to get buff and be a hero. He still maintains his quirkyness in the end though, and that makes this character who could just be another macho-man, quite relatable.
Just as amazing as Hercules though, is Hades, the lord of the Underworld. Hades is excellent. He’s essentially a used car salesman with way too much power. He delights in making deals in order to put together his evil plans. You sort of get this sense that Hades really just wants someone to talk to. Perhaps the only reason he wants to live in Olympus is so that he can have some friends who aren’t dead people. Perhaps he’s just bored with his current lot in life. Hades is the perfect example of people who hate happy people simply because they themselves are not happy. All of this comes down to a sarcastic, quick-witted villain who has more zingers than almost every other character in the film. I particularly love that during the final battle for Olympus, he is not particularly involved. Instead, he sits off to the sidelines, cheering and making comic book like noises as the titans break things.
The supporting cast is equally fantastic. DeVito’s “One Last Hope” is probably my favorite song in the film and his frequent fits of yelling always got a laugh from me. He presents slapstick humor at its finest, and it really works in this film. I love this old creepy man-goat persona that gives us the more cynical side of heroism. Pegasus is trusty and true but also provides a lot of good laughs. His competition with Meg is particularly great as it gives the two a lot of good moments together. In a way, Pegasus takes the little hints of horses being slightly human from Hunchback and expands on it. Of course, we’ll see a lot more of this in Tangled and Frozen eventually.
I talk a lot about female characters here and that’s because I find that in these films, they are the one’s that can either make or break the film. I like Meg a lot. I do. I promise I do. BUT, I hate that all of her problems involve men. Her entire lot in life revolves around her feelings for men. That’s it. She loved a man and traded her soul for his life. Then she falls for Herc and that causes even more issues. I like that she’s quirky and has a lot of dry humor and I like that she doesn’t want to just fall in love with any old guy, but take away the one-liners and the wit and she’s a pretty one-dimensional character.
There’s this over-arcing feeling of a story that is set in ancient times BUT has a lot of modern day twits. Thebes is basically New York City. We see toy stores selling action figures. Gods wearing sunglasses. Fates talk about indoor plumbing. It all has this present day vibe, despite being set quite long ago. My favorite of these is watching Pain wear sandals with Herc’s name on them. Add in the gospel like music from Alan Menken and you get this really eclectic film that feels so fresh and different. It just pops with style and originality.
Hercules was not a financial success, but it was a critical one. Most critics found it to be a lot of fun, even though many sighted, in sometimes dramatic ways, not liking the art direction of the film. I think what’s more important is that Hercules brings us back to having fun, like we did in Aladdin. It takes the time to throw in the jokes and keeps them coming for truly legitimate laughs. The characters are all a delight to watch and even the villain is hilarious. The pace of the film flies by and you’re always getting introduced to some new monster or mythical facet of the world. The Hydra is dazzling to behold and the scene in which it grows all of its heads is one of the most epic to date in a Disney film.
In the end, Hercules is all about growing up and fitting in. It succeeds because it relates to us on a very human level and in the end, love saves the day and in finding love, Hercules finds his place in the world. Maybe it’s not the most groundbreaking film, but it is a delight to watch and even the darkest, scariest moments have us giggling. “Um fellas, Olympus would be that way.” Despite being incredibly strong, Hercules wins the day with his heart and not his muscles, and that’s a lesson we all could use a little of every now and then.
Next Up: Mulan
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head overHERE and check it out!