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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Monday, April 8, 2013

“To Your Left is Hercules' Villa. Next Stop, the Pecs and Flex Gift Shop, Where You Can Buy the Great Hero's New 30-Minute Workout Scroll, ‘Buns of Bronze.’”

            Okay guys, we’ve gotten through Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame; it’s time to par-tay!  In stark contrast to the drama of the previous two films, Hercules stands illuminated as a beacon of non-seriousness, from the animation style to the lighthearted story tone to the vibrant gospel music that makes up its soundtrack.  To get into the gospel spirit (and to sum up my mood regarding reviewing a non-dramatic film), I present the following video:

            … Everybody feeling happier now?  Me too.  Let’s talk about Hercules.
If I’m this excited, then it must have been an utter relief for Disney Animation to work on a film like Hercules, in which animation could be animated, if you know what I mean.  For Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, realism was the rule: realistic human movements, realistic animals, and realistic anatomy.  While impressive to watch, animating figures with the intention of making them as close to real life as possible seems rather limiting as far as creative expression is concerned.  From story conception to character design to character movement, there is nothing in Hercules’ animation that could be mistaken for “realism.”

Wax on...
Of course, Ron Clements and John Musker are not particularly known for bringing nuance and realism to their films; they are Disney’s go-to guys for fantasy and humor, both of which are prominent here in their fourth outing as directors.  Hercules was Clements and Musker’s first film since Aladdin and tonally the two films are very similar.  Much like Aladdin, Hercules was more or less a straight-up comedy with plenty of pop-culture references: The Karate Kid, Midnight Cowboy, and I Love Lucy, among others are referenced.  James Woods improvised many of his lines as Hades, much like Robin Williams did for the Genie.  Alan Menken composed the soundtrack and the animation in both films is highly stylized.  In Aladdin, it was the Middle Eastern s-curve that influenced the art direction, whereas here in Hercules the geometric proportions of Greek pottery were the rule.  This is especially noticeable with Meg, who is curvy while simultaneously being lanky and svelte.  On a more subliminal level is the near constant presence of a swirling spiral: the clouds around Mount Olympus form a spiral, as do the curls on Hercules’ head, as well as the irises of Hades’ eyes when he flips out.  The distinctive art direction fits well with the more fantastic, mythological foundation of Hercules’ story.
The spiral overtakes Hades' eyes whenever he is flipping out about something
The clouds around Olympus all have a spiral shape
Hercules is the first time Disney devoted a full-length animated feature to a story originating from Greek myth, but it is not the first time that the studio has drawn inspiration from mythology.  The very first occurrence of Greek mythological figures appearing in a Disney animated film happened all the way back in 1940 during the famous “Pastoral Symphony” segment of Fantasia.  Even though Hercules does not strive for the elegance and poetic beauty of its elder counterpart, it is worth noting the personas that overlap between the two works for their similarities and their differences in regards to design.  For some character models, in which the similarities are far too abundant to be coincidental, it is obvious that the filmmakers did look to Fantasia to some degree for inspiration.
The winged foals of Fantasia
Pegasus when he was a foal in Hercules
For starters, the design between baby Pegasus and the baby-winged horses are very similar (then again, that is just what foals more or less look like in real life).  The adult Pegasus is not quite as curvy and elegant as his Fantasia counterparts; his face is also much more expressive.  On the other hand, the satyrs in Fantasia were much, much cuter, more youthful, and more colorful than Philoctetes… not quite as pot-bellied either.  The centaurs of Fantasia are young and handsome and not menacing in the slightest, as opposed to Nessus who is monstrous in every aspect (though his color scheme looks as though it was born out of Fantasia).  
Graceful and majestic in Fantasia
Graceful but not quite as regal in Hercules
A Satyr being adorable in Fantasia
Phil trying to be adorable in Hercules... his success is debatable
A sweet, dapper, and blue centaur in Fantasia
Nessus from Hercules is definitely a blue centaur, but he's the farthest thing from sweet or dapper
There are also the gods to consider.  Appearing in “Pastoral Symphony” are: Dionysus (wine), Zeus (sky and thunder), Hephaestus (artisans and fire), the Anemoi (wind), Iris (rainbows), Apollo (sun), Nyx (night), and Artemis (hunt).  Of those gods, the ones who also appear in Hercules are Dionysus, Zeus, Hephaestus, and Apollo.  Apollo (voiced by future Disney villain, Keith David) bears the least resemblance to his Fantasia counterpart, who is little more than a burning man in a chariot.  The Hercules version of Hephaestus is significantly more rugged than his appearance in Fantasia, but their color schemes are quite similar.  Zeus as he appears in Hercules seems to have a very similar swirly hairstyle as his Fantasia counterpart, though in Fantasia his color scheme reflects the menacing role he plays with the cool blues as opposed to the warm radiance he has as a wise father figure in the later film.  The god whose design is pert near identical in both films is most definitely Dionysus: the round body, noticeably rosy cheeks, the small closed eyes, and the jolly wide grin reflect both the classical impression of Dionysus’ appearance as well as a strong Ward Kimball influence.
Apollo circa Fantasia
Apollo as he appears in Hercules
Hephaestus certainly looked like he enjoyed his work more in Fantasia
Hephaestus has his game face on as he helps arm Zeus in the battle against the Titans in Hercules
Bad Zeus in Fantasia...
... And good Zeus in Hercules
Dionysus in all of his rotund, jovial, drunken glory in Fantasia...
...And Dionysus in all of his rotund, jovial, drunken glory in Hercules
I may have mentioned this a while back, but I am a total geek for Greek and Roman mythology.  Most of the time, I try to keep the film and the source material upon which it is based separate; this time around I am quite familiar with the source material so I feel compelled to devote some time discussing the original mythology and how it relates to the Disney adaptation of the story of Hercules.  Let’s start with that name: Hercules.  I’ve always found it interesting that movies and television shows claiming to be based on the original Greek myth still seem to use the name ‘Hercules.’  Why is that interesting?  Because ‘Hercules’ is actually the Roman name for the character; ‘Heracles’ is his original Greek name.  For some reason, the Roman name ‘Hercules’ became better known than ‘Heracles.’  Even for properties that are very strict about using the proper Greek names for the gods, they still use the name ‘Hercules’ instead of ‘Heracles’: Disney’s Hercules and the popular TV show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys are both guilty of the name switch.

It’s not just his name that got changed though.  While Disney has an extensive and proud history with changing stories around to suit their animated films, I don’t think they have altered a story’s plot points quite as much as they did Greek mythology for this film.  Here, the biggest change to the original Hercules tale was making Hera his birth mother.  If you are familiar with the Greek myth, then you know that Hera, queen of the gods, had many feelings regarding Hercules, none of which were maternal. 
The story goes that one night Zeus visited Alcmene – assuming the form of Amphitryon, her husband, who had been off fighting a war – and seduced her, conceiving Hercules.  Hera wasn’t too happy about her husband’s indiscretions and sent down two snakes to murder an infant Hercules, who proceeded to kill said snakes by strangling them… from his crib.  Hercules would spend his life enduring hardships caused by his stepmother, including being driven into a state of madness that compelled him to kill his wife, Megara, and their children.  As an act of repentance for his actions, Hercules was tasked with his famous twelve labors.
Clearly, elements of the original story are present in Disney’s Hercules, but most prominently excluded is Hera’s role as Hercules’ primary antagonist.  This is unusual seeing as how Disney has a history with wicked stepmothers and would not normally shy away from employing a villainous maternal figure.  So why alter the story?  I suspect that the blame falls upon Zeus’ shoulders… in more ways than one.  If Disney kept Hera in the more familiar peacock decorated villain role, it would mean explaining to the audience (especially curious young children) why Hera hated Hercules so vehemently.  Imagine having this conversation with a five year old: “You see, honey, Hera is mad at her husband, Zeus, for having an affair and then impregnating a mortal.  Zeus has affairs with mortals quite frequently because he’s miserable in his arranged marriage to Hera, who is technically his sister. That’s why she devotes so much time to plotting Hercules’ downfall.”
…For some reason, I don’t think that would gel with most parents.  So Hera was amended from a vindictive shrew to a warm and loving mama who shared a happy, devoted marriage with Zeus.  When it comes down to it, I can’t fault John Musker and Ron Clements too much for the alteration; it takes a lot of Disney-fying to clean up Greek mythology and make it appropriate for all ages.  Though I do have to call attention to Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson book series, who managed to make Greek mythology cool to kids without altering the original myths.  Riordan did not gloss over the idea that the gods had affairs with mortals, but he also did not go into explicit detail of the full implication of that concept.
The cover to Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
That being said, if a kid becomes interested in Greek mythology after viewing Disney’s Hercules, then the Greek myth purists should not complain too much, since it could mean a future Classics scholar, regardless of where the curiosity was born.  Besides being obviously cool, Greek myth is epic, thought provoking, and sometimes downright hilarious.  For instance, there is a version of the Hercules myth in which Hera was tricked into breastfeeding Hercules as an infant until her breast milk was accidentally spilled across the sky, thus creating the Milky Way.
… No, I’m not making that up.  Anyway, I can’t blame Hera for briefly being willing to care for baby Hercules, especially if he looked anything like Disney’s baby Hercules. 
Disney has managed to create some a-freaking-dorable babies in the past (Dumbo, Mowgli, Simba), but I think baby Hercules may edge them all out simply because he comes with baby Pegasus, who is also a-freaking-dorable.  Come on, just try not to smile when Hercules conks Pegasus on the head or at Pegasus’ little snore.  Zeus presenting Pegasus to Hercules is one of my favorite scenes in the film, simply for that moment when the fourth wall is briefly broken when we cut to the gods of Olympus cooing over the sight of baby Hercules hugging baby Pegasus.  The filmmakers are illustrating through the gods exactly what the audience is doing upon seeing something so precious.  When I was compiling images to use for this entry, I found myself saving every single image I could find of baby Hercules and baby Pegasus just because they were all too cute for words.  In fact, let us pause for a moment so that we can all go “D’aww” at pictures of baby Hercules and baby Pegasus.

Disney’s depiction of Hercules is definitely a departure from previous film and TV adaptations in which Hercules is portrayed most of the time as the ancient Greek Superman; Disney’s Hercules is less Clark Kent and more Peter Parker.  The first third of the film sees Hercules as an exceptionally strong baby, and then as an exceptionally strong, yet incredibly awkward teenager.  The latter portions of the film portray Hercules as muscular and handsome, but he has absolutely no idea how to speak to women and he retains the clumsiness that made him a target of mockery in his youth.  Considering that he is literally a child of gods, it makes sense that the filmmakers gave him some considerable flaws that he never quite grows out of.  If Hercules lacked these little imperfections, it would have been impossible for the audience to identify with and relate to him; in a Disney animated film, the audience identifying with the title character is everything.

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: in order for the audience to emotionally respond to the plight of the title character in a Disney animated film, they have to like him or her, they have to relate to him or her, and they have to root for him or her.  Fortunately, Disney succeeded in creating a sympathetic, likable, and triumphant main character with Hercules.  Who among us cannot relate to and sympathize with an awkward, bumbling teenager who isn’t comfortable in his own skin and has difficulty talking to girls?  There is no moment that garners more sympathy for Hercules than when he is a gangly teenage boy who unintentionally destroyed the village market place just by trying to catch a wayward discus.  Randy R. Haycock was the supervising animator for baby and young Hercules and he did a fantastic job of accurately portraying Hercules as a spindly teenager with absolutely no control over his body.  They made an interesting design choice regarding his feet in that they are oversized in comparison to the rest of his bodily proportions.  This makes him even more awkward and alludes to the large muscular body he’ll claim ownership to later in life; his feet appear to be of a normal size when he’s big and bulky.  Upon noticing his large feet, Ginger and I had this exchange, which gave us both the giggles:
Ginger: Look at how big his feet are in comparison to the rest of his body.
Breanna:  …well, you know what they say about cartoon demigods with big feet.
Ginger: … big sandals.
Hercules as an adult is the pinnacle of physical perfection, but he still retains a boyish clumsiness that only makes him more endearing.  Balancing two such contradicting traits is a challenging prospect from an animation standpoint; fortunately, his supervising animator was none other than the masterful Andreas Deja.  At this point in the Disney Renaissance, Deja was known as the go-to villain animator, having brought to life the likes of Scar, Jafar, and Gaston, so it’s surprising that he would go in the complete opposite direction with animating the heroic title character.  I suspect a key factor for why he was chosen for this particular gig is because of his work on Gaston; he obviously had experience pushing the animation potential of a large muscular male, so for the scene where Hercules is training just before Phil tells him the truth about Meg, Deja is able to render Hercules capable of being light on his feet as he performs various feats of acrobatics, which is not what the audience would have initially expected a heavy muscular form to be capable of.
Of course, Deja only made up one-half of the character of Hercules… or… wait, I guess I should say one-fifth of the character of Hercules.  During the course of his film, Hercules is voiced by four – count ‘em – four voice actors: there’s the stock baby voice, Josh Lucas as the teenage Hercules, Roger Bart as Hercules’ singing voice, and finally actor Tate Donovan who continues to voice a fully grown Hercules in most – but not all – of his Disney appearances (Goonies and Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin voiced Hercules for Kingdom Hearts).  You guys know what that means?  It means Hercules actually surpassed Wart for having the most voice actors performing the same character in one film (only three performers played Wart in The Sword in the Stone).  Donovan provided a lively, energetic, and youthful performance (his performance as he mourned over Meg’s body sounded a bit forced to my ears), but it is my opinion that Josh granted Hercules just a touch more soul than Donovan, though both gentlemen turned in commendable performances.
While Donovan was obviously not eighteen at the time Hercules was being made, he still managed to come across as young, inexperienced, misguided and just a touch overconfident.  Hercules frequently seeks out guidance from three key mentor figures in his life: his birth father, Zeus (boomingly voiced by Rip Torn), his adoptive father, Amphitryon (provided by the ever-so-nurturing Hal Holbrook), and his mentor/coach, Phil (voiced and obviously modeled after the one and only Danny DeVito).  All three of these men offer Hercules encouragement and counsel at various points throughout his life, though their methods vary.  Even though Zeus is Hercules’ biological father, his interactions with his son are the most limited.  While it is made clear how much he cherishes his son as evidenced by their scenes together when Hercules is a baby (the animation of Zeus’ nervous care as he cradles Hercules in both of his substantial hands is very endearing), Zeus’ sage wisdom offered to Hercules as an adolescent and adult is deliberately vague.  Though he is willing to point Hercules in the right direction and gives him a destination to reach, Zeus does not make the path to his son’s destiny completely perspicuous.
Zeus tells Hercules that he has to become a true hero and when queried by his son on how exactly to do that, he simply tells him to first seek out Philoctetes.  Hercules repeats this line back to himself, as though finding Phil will provide the solution to all of his problems.  Revealed in this one exchange is Hercules’ belief that becoming a true hero is a step-by-step process, as though his godhood will be restored once he completes a set series of tasks.  This is the source of his disappointment following his next meeting with Zeus because it is revealed to Hercules that the path to true hero-dom is not so simple.

Hercules obviously desires for his father to give a definitive answer so that his ultimate goal can finally be met, and he becomes depressed, lethargic, and frustrated upon his realization that becoming a true hero would be more difficult than he first believed.  Zeus’ unclear directions are not a reflection of whether or not he wants his son to succeed – he clearly does and he makes a point of telling Hercules how proud he is of his boy’s accomplishments – but it is indicative of his godly nature.  Whether it is gods or God, these divine figures are famous for providing a destination but how to forge the path is left up to us mortals.  As the saying goes, it is not about the destination, but the journey, and Hercules only meets his destiny when he heeds his father’s sole advice and looks inside his heart.
A little more forthcoming with answers is his adoptive father, Amphitryon.  During the early part of his life, it is clear that Amphitryon and Alcmene are Hercules’ biggest supporters, most trusted confidantes, and (really and truly) his only friends.  Amphitryon tries to make Hercules feel as normal as possible, but it’s impossible for him to shield his son from the consequences of his own exorbitant strength.  Hearing the villagers calling his son (who he and his wife agreed was the gods’ answer to their prayers only a few scenes prior) a freak hurt Amphitryon almost as much as it did Hercules.  Even though Hercules is not his son by blood, it is clear that Amphitryon loves the boy as if he were his own and does not try to hide the truth of Hercules’ past from him when Hercules begins to question his place in the world.  Even if it means watching their precious son leave home and journey to regions unknown, Amphitryon and Alcmene both love Hercules enough to know that the best thing for him is to let him go.  If Hercules is Peter Parker, then Amphitryon is clearly his Uncle Ben, his humanity making him stronger than all of the other gods, which will become crucial later in the film when he finally takes the plunge to become a true hero.

It is interesting that the two men who can actually claim to be Hercules’ fathers are the two father figures he spends the least amount of time with.  Phil is the most influential of Hercules’ role models, and ironically is also the most flawed of the three.  When the audience first meets Phil, he is a cynical and jaded former trainer of heroes, who has completely given up on his dream after one too many disappointments.  Not so coincidentally, Meg is also a cynical and jaded loner who has completely given up on love after one disappointment too many.  Hercules, Meg, and Philoctetes form a not-completely romantic triangle with Hercules serving as the apex and Phil and Meg competing over the blossoming young hero. 

Though they dislike each other vehemently, Meg and Phil actually parallel one another as they both go through a similar emotional character arc.  During their initial meetings with Hercules, both characters express distrust and disbelief regarding Herc: “Hold it, Zeus is your father, right?” and “He comes on with his big, innocent farm boy routine, but I could see through that in a Peloponnesian minute.”  Hercules is a truly earnest, kind, and innocent character –a rarity as much in modern times as it would have been in ancient Greece – and Phil and Meg are both so jaded that neither can initially believe that such a good heart could exist in a human being.  It is the cynicism that they both possess that keeps them from trusting the other throughout most of the film.

At first, both make attempts to enlighten Hercules about how unpleasant the world is: Phil tells him that “dreams are for rookies” and Meg insists that all people are “petty and dishonest.”  As both characters spend more time with Hercules, they each gradually come to realize that this awkward young demigod’s good nature is completely genuine.  Phil recognizes that Hercules has “got something I’ve never seen before,” not fully able to vocalize that that “something” is the strength and conviction of his heart.  When this realization occurs, both characters become protective of Hercules and try to keep him from getting hurt, both from physical and emotional threats: Megara refuses to help Hades harm Hercules, and Phil tries to tell his young pupil that Meg’s intentions are not pure.  Meg and Phil spent the film competing with the other in regards to who held more influence over Hercules, not realizing until the film’s climax that Hercules was the one influencing them to change for the better.

Both characters come around to Hercules’ way of thinking come film’s climax, evident in the way that both of them state outright that they were wrong.  Meg is the first one to let go of her cynicism when Hercules puts his life in danger and she sets aside her pride to go find Phil.  Phil is the more stubborn of the two, at first not heeding Meg’s pleas, his pride still wounded from his earlier confrontation with Hercules.  Meg is able to straighten out the satyr’s perspective by stating that “this isn’t about me, it’s about him.”  Emotionally, Phil catches up with Meg at this moment as he realizes that it was Hercules who was right all along and tells his charge that “giving up is for rookies.  I came back because I’m not quitting on you.  I’m willing to go the distance, how about you?”  By reaffirming Hercules’ own belief in himself, Phil inspires Hercules to play David to the Cyclops’ Goliath.  Meg also proves that she has changed as a character when she is once again willing to give her life for the man she loves, proving to the audience, Hercules, and Phil – her most vocal doubter – that her love for Hercules is real.  Phil volunteering to remain with Meg in her dying moments as her love goes off to save the day is an appropriate ending to their shared emotional story.

Because they were both based on figures found within Greek mythology, there was no previous standard personality to fall back on for either Meg or Hercules.  Instead of making Hercules a hulking barbaric brute and Meg his simpering damsel in distress (as have been the initial instincts of many past filmmakers in their own approach to Greek myth), they made Hercules an awkward, bumbling teenager who has no clue how to talk to girls and Meg a strong, sexy, sarcastic damsel in distress.  She does declare herself “a damsel in distress” during her initial meeting with Hercules, so in a way she owns that title and makes it her own, just as Hercules frequently declares himself the “hero” at various points throughout the film.  These two characters are completely aware of the roles they play in the story, but both of them defy the expectations that come with the title of “the hero” and “the damsel in distress” until the end, when they both come to embody their chosen titles (Hercules becomes a hero after Meg becomes a damsel in distress).

The Disney portrayal of Meg is interesting in terms of how she serves as a romantic foil to Hercules.  Our title character is eighteen, naïve, optimistic, energetic, and pretty innocent as far as eighteen year old attractive male celebrities go.  His leading lady is sarcastic, jaded, cynical, street wise, and is obviously fully aware (and makes use) of her sexuality.  Wikipedia says that Meg is the same age as Hercules, but given how much the film portrays her as worldly and experienced, she comes across as being at least a couple of years older than her romantic interest.  Given that she has already been in at least one previous relationship and her overall demeanor, Meg comes across more as a twenty-two-year-old, minimum.  Megara: Disney’s first cougar.
Obviously, this is a departure from what we’re used to from Disney as far as their heroes and heroines go.  Typically the story goes that it is the young and innocent princess who falls for the older, more worldly and attractive male: Snow White was only fourteen when she met her Prince and is the poster child for Disney innocence and naiveté, Ariel was obviously new to Eric’s world, Jasmine had never left the palace walls before she met Aladdin, Pocahontas fell in love with John Smith who was an explorer who had traveled the world, and –most recently– Rapunzel spent the first eighteen years of her life locked in a tower before Flynn Rider showed her the light.  While one could make the argument that Esmeralda was the first jaded worldly heroine playing opposite an innocent male lead, she was not posing the threat of corrupting Quasimodo.  Meg, on the other hand, was kind of a bad girl influence on Hercules.  She encourages him to play hooky (and actually using the phrase, “playing hooky”), she tries to seduce him on their date, not to mention she’s also assisting in plotting his downfall with the lord of the dead.  When they’re caught by Phil and Pegasus, the scene is very reminiscent of a couple of teenagers who were making out in the backseat of a car before getting busted by a cop with a flashlight. 
Phil (however misguided his intentions may be) is actually justified in not trusting Meg, seeing as how she really was conspiring with one of Hercules’ enemies.  Her character is severely flawed and it is not until the end when she finally redeems herself.  Even Meg openly acknowledges her imperfections: when she insists to Hercules that all people are “petty and dishonest,” she is gazing at her reflection in a fountain.  An old film convention (made popular by Hitchcock) is that whenever a character is doing something wrong and/or dishonest, their reflections are visible.  In using her body and femininity as a means of discovering Hercules’ weakness to assist Hades in taking over the world, Meg is definitely not acting like a shining example of humanity.

A true landmark in Disney Animation history, Hercules marks the first time the main female character is in cahoots – however unwilling she might be about it – with the villain.  Meg’s extended interactions with Hades are humorous, twisted, and foreboding, illustrating that Meg can hold her own against a god while at the same time Hades is able to greedily exploit her vulnerabilities to his advantage: she delights in taunting him about Hercules’ ability to beat any obstacle Hades sends his way, while Hades frequently reminds Meg of her lover’s betrayal and the lifetime of enslaved servitude she owes because of him.  To get her to do what he wants, Hades dangles offers of freedom in front of her like a worm on a hook and reminds her frequently of the hurt her former love caused her, effectively dissuading her from any further thoughts of love and romance.  Crafting Hades as a satanic figure making Faustian bargains with unwitting mortals was a stroke of genius on the part of the filmmakers; Musker and Clements stated that their version of Hades was more along the lines of a slimy used cars salesman than a menacing god figure over all things deceased.
I don’t know if this story is true or not, but if it is true, then it is the most awesome Disney casting story I have ever heard.  When they were casting for the role of Hades, almost all of the auditioning performers construed the god of the dead as a menacing and slow villain, which is the typical initial reaction most would have when imagining the lord of the Underworld.  Supposedly, James Woods arrived at his audition tipsy from a few drinks he had at lunch and adlibbed the line, “Name’s Hades, lord of the dead.  Hi, how ya doin’?”  Whether stone sober or otherwise, the directors loved this nontraditional, fast talking approach to Hades.  Even after the script was rewritten to better suit the new approach to the character, Woods continued to improvise many of his lines creating one of the best Disney Animation vocal performances heard since Robin Williams’ turn as the Genie in Aladdin

Woods’ Hades is easily one of Disney’s most entertaining villains, and he is arguably the most quotable ever conceived: “So is this an audience or a mosaic?”, “I wonder if maybe I haven’t been throwing the right curves at him, Meg my sweet,” “Herc, you little devil you, can I call you ‘Herc?’,” and “Hmm, the son of my hated rival trapped forever in a river of death… is there a downside to this?” are just a handful of Hades’ colorful banter.  Aside from an obviously stellar vocal performance, there’s not much emotional depth to Hades.  Whereas Hercules is soulful and full of emotional nuance, Hades is a perfect foil in that his waters don’t run too deep and his motivations are very transparent.  Regardless, he’s a fun character with some insanely quotable one-liners, and his memorability as a villain can be completely attributed to Woods’ performance.

Of course, hostile takeover to rearrange the cosmos would be difficult without some further assistance.  Hades’ additional aid comes in the form of his slapstick minions, Pain and Panic (voiced in manic, comic fashion by Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer, respectively).  Of course, Hercules was not alone on his journey to Olympus.  In the grand Disney tradition of the hero having a nonspeaking equine sidekick, Hercules is joined on his adventures by his childhood friend, Pegasus.  Pegasus is “a magnificent horse with the brain of a bird.”  It is that brain of a bird that Pegasus was born with that provide Hercules with its best visual gags: Pegasus’ brief turkey impersonation, weightlessly perching himself on Hercules’shoulder, and eating a bowl of birdseed with some of his bird friends leap to mind first as his most amusing moments. 
From left to right: Thalia, Melpomene, Calliope, Clio, and Terpsichore
I am not ashamed to say that my favorite Hercules supporting characters – arguably my favorite aspect of Hercules overall – are the Muses.  Their animation took full advantage of the hand drawn medium (their supervising animator was Michael Show), their narrative purpose in the story was a delightful and inspired choice on the part of the filmmakers, and they got Charlton Heston (in what is probably the shortest, yet most epic vocal cameo ever performed for a Disney animated film) to utter the words, “You go, girl.”  Supposedly, the famous “girl power” spouting British pop girl band, the Spice Girls, were originally considered for the Muses.  Obviously, that would have made for a significantly different Hercules and I – for one – am glad that they opted to go the Gospel route.
All five of the Muses were voiced by some truly fabulous and gifted vocalists (Lillias White was Calliope, the Muse of Epics, Vanéese Y. Thomas was Clio, the Muse of History, Cheryl Freeman was Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, LaChanze was Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance, and Roz Ryan was Thalia, the Muse of Comedy).  Each one of them sounded as though they were having a blast recording all of their songs, especially “Zero to Hero.”  Should Hercules ever see a blu-ray release, one bonus feature I would give my right leg to see is the footage of the Muses recording their songs much like the Aladdin Platinum Edition bonus feature showing Brad Kane and Lea Salonga recording “A Whole New World.”  These women had fantastic chemistry and it would be absolutely amazing to witness their epic performances as they were happening.
As I said earlier (as in, last May), Hercules is my all-time favorite Disney soundtrack.  The choice to go with a gospel influence was absolutely inspired in that it adds so much subliminal emotion to the narrative: gospel music is able to keenly convey both sorrow and joy, as those are the two emotions that manage to comfortably coexist with one another in almost all of Hercules’ musical offerings.  Consider the opening song, “The Gospel Truth,” which is very triumphant and energetic, describing the gods’ victory over the wicked Titans.  This song is reprised twice, each version progressively growing more somber until the Muses are literally singing the blues for Hercules’ loss of godhood. 

This juxtaposition of joy and sorrow continues with the Muses’ signature song, “Zero to Hero.”  The rhythm and story of the song is so exuberant and lively, that the audience does not initially infer that all of this fame and fortune is a detriment to Hercules’ real goal of becoming a true hero.  As Zeus himself said, “I’m afraid being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero.”  “Zero to Hero” describes in detail what most modern audiences would define as a hero: fame, fortune, fans, “Zero to Hero” parodies our culture’s obsession with idolizing celebrities to the point where we practically deify them.  After witnessing Hercules’ second encounter with Zeus, this upbeat, supposedly lighthearted song feels more like reality slapping the audience in the face as they are reminded that money, notoriety, and hoards of screaming girls are not the stuff of heroes.
 Making a return to joyful exuberance by film’s end, the Muses come full circle with “A Star is Born,” which is nothing but pure joy vocalized and set to music.  By ending the film with such a jubilant, happy song, the Muses are able to drive the point home that ultimately the story of Hercules is one to celebrate: the villain is vanquished, the world is safe, the heroine is rescued, and Hercules has managed to prove himself to be a wise, strong, kind, and loving hero worthy of being immortalized in the stars.  With “A Star is Born” ringing in the audience’s ears as the film closes, it is almost impossible to not raise your arms skyward and believe that the strength of the heart is more than enough to overcome impossible odds.

It is not only the Muses who express both themes of sorrow and joy in their songs.  Phil spends a great portion of his big musical number “One Last Hope” lamenting his current status as the trainer of heroes and vocalizing his dissatisfaction with Hercules’ fledgling hero abilities.  It is only in his final verse when Hercules finally shows real promise at the end of his training does Phil’s tone change from a cynical and jaded goat to an optimistic and encouraging teacher.  While the songs crooned by the supporting cast tell a story of both joy and sorrow, there are also Hercules and Meg to consider.

For a film that’s supposedly more fun and lighthearted than the previous two entries in the Disney Animation canon, the signature songs of both of Hercules’ leads tells a story of some very complex internal conflicts.  “Go the Distance” is at once inspiring, bittersweet, and moving, its message possessing a broader scope beyond the confines of the film. The way “Go the Distance” expresses Hercules’ longing to know his place in the world speaks to a broad audience, who may also wish to know where they belong.  There have been times that the message of “Go the Distance” has caught me off guard and brought me to tears.  It helps that the music itself is absolutely gorgeous, but what else would we expect from Alan Menken?  The Hercules soundtrack, by the way, is a first time collaboration between Menken and lyricist, David Zippel.

The only other song on the Hercules soundtrack that is superior to “Go the Distance” is “Go the Distance (Reprise).”  The longing tone of the main song has been replaced by a glorious affirmation of a human being truly believing in himself for the first time in his young life.  That belt Roger Bart performs to cap off the song is quite possibly the longest, most breathtaking Disney belt since Mary Costa’s performance as Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty back in 1959.  Both versions of “Go the Distance” are the only times in his film that Hercules himself sings; thankfully, Roger Bart succeeds in spades in giving Hercules his Ariel moment as Hercules’ soul is laid bare before the audience during these song sequences.  Also, his version of “Go the Distance” is superior to Michael Bolton’s in every way.  Don’t try to argue with me about that.

 Hercules’ soul is not the only one put on display during the course of this film.  Following her romantic evening stroll in a garden with Hercules, Meg serenades the audience with what is easily Disney’s most unconventional love song, “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love).”  Most Disney heroines sing odes to how glorious love is; once again, Meg proves what a departure she is to the ladies who have come before by refusing to even acknowledge the possibility that she might be falling in love with Hercules.  There have been so many Disney songs about the glorious feeling of falling in love, that it’s very refreshing for there to be at least one Disney love song all about how difficult it can be to accept love after being burned in a previous relationship.  The Muses are fantastic in their role as the chorus Meg shares her dilemma with, while Broadway actress – and originator of the role of Belle in the stage version of Beauty and the Beast – Susan Egan gives the leading lady a fantastic, distinctive voice that perfectly creates a cynical yet sexy young woman who manages to find love with a not-so-articulate wonder boy with rippling pectorals.

 “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” perfectly demonstrates the emotional transition Meg makes from the spurned and feisty D.I.D. Hercules saved from a vicious centaur to a selfless and loving woman willing to give her life so that the man she loves can stop the Titans and save the world.  In the today’s media interpretation of Greek mythological figures, the Titans are almost always cast as the villainous counterparts to the Olympian gods. Considering that most of them reveled in chaos and destruction and the Lord of the Titans ate his own children, the role as antagonists suits them well.  Instead of being chopped into pieces and thrown into the depths of Tartarus as punishment for their misdeeds, Disney opted for the less graphic imprisonment of sealing the Titans within a lightning vault beneath the ocean floor. As opposed to employing the more familiar likes of Kronos and Atlas, Hercules’ Titans are elemental behemoths that are set up throughout the film as unstoppable juggernauts of destruction that promise a positively… well, Herculean challenge for our hero to overcome. 

Strangely enough, the final showdown with the Titans was not that epic.  Olympus fell to the Titans easily and then when Hercules showed up, the Titans were defeated by him very quickly.  When Hercules swoops in on Pegasus and cuts through the chain binding the gods, he declares, “This ought to even the odds!”  Aside from Zeus and Hephaestus, the rest of the gods seemed pretty content to kick back and allow Hercules to do all the work as they vanished completely from the rest of this scene.  Hercules managed to do in one minute and twenty seven seconds what twelve Olympians could not. 

 Since the Titans were set up as fearsome, insurmountable opponents throughout the film, the final confrontation with them felt very anticlimactic, especially in the shadow of an earlier scene.  If one is looking for a sweeping action set piece, look no further than Hercules’ battle with the Hydra.  The stakes were at their highest, the foe was a legitimate threat, and Hercules’ defeat of the creature was – as the man himself said – “pretty heroic,” in that he had to employ both his brain and brawn to defeat the monster.  The Hydra itself was the most complicated piece of computer animation Disney had ever done by that time; reportedly, there were up to ten animators working on that scene at one time, and it took anywhere from six to fourteen hours to render one frame of film, depending on how many heads it had at the time.

 It is ironic that even though the title character is famous for being a figure of action and daring physical feats, Hercules is not an action film.  The filmmakers never meant their clash of the Titans to be a long epic battle as that would have left very little time for the film’s real climax.  As the audience would soon find out, defeating the Titans was not Hercules’ final test.  Like a classic Greek tragedy, in the film’s final act, our hero is dealt a tragic blow when he returns triumphant from battle only to find that his ladylove has succumbed to her mortal wounds and has already passed on into the underworld. 

Hercules mourning over Meg’s body is not a first for Disney; Snow White’s Prince also grieved for her when he believed her dead, but Hercules does mark the first time that true love’s first kiss ain’t gonna cut it.  In both Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty, the audience is aware that the sleeping princesses aren’t really dead and that everything is going to work out as soon as the prince plants one on her.  In Hercules, this is definitely not the case.  When Megara dies, she is unquestionably dead: her body is broken, she stops breathing, and her soul passes on into the afterlife.  When Hercules is grieving and cradling her lifeless form close to his heart, there is no deus ex machina magic spell to break that will set everything right again.  Hercules is experiencing real loss and for once the audience doesn’t know if everything is going to work out neatly into a happily ever after.  This is a curious event to transpire in a Disney film that supposedly bends towards the comedic side of the spectrum, and it won’t be the final time Ron Clements and John Musker pull such a plot twist (i.e. The Princess and the Frog).
 Despite its fantastical elements and stylized animation, the heart of Hercules’ story is a very true to life coming-of-age tale.  Besides the painfully familiar depiction of his adolescence, the hero of this film does not save his ladylove from a wicked spell with true love’s kiss. Whether it is in the form of soldiers who fight to defend their country overseas, the firefighters who risk their lives for the safety of civilians, or the police force who uphold the law on a day-to-day basis, love and sacrifice are what truly define a hero.  Hercules does not become a hero by battling a monster or by kissing a sleeping Princess; it is the love he shares with Meg that makes them both willing to sacrifice their own lives for the other. By their willingness to give their lives for each other does Hercules prove himself a true hero and Megara proves herself worthy of her hero’s love.
Given its strong message and uplifting soundtrack, it should come as no surprise that Hercules was a successful film for Disney.  It was well received by critics, who especially praised James Woods’ performance as Hades.  Overall it grossed $253 million on an $85 million budget.  “Go the Distance” also received an Oscar nomination for best song.  Unfortunately, Hercules was competing in the same awards season as Titanic, so of course it lost to that classic Celine Dion ballad, “My Heart Will Go On.”  Hercules spawned an animated “mid-quel” series of the same name that detailed Hercules’ adventures in high school.  Though it only ran for one season, it boasted an impressive number of celebrity guest stars (including but not limited to Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Linda Hamilton, Keith David, Craig Ferguson, Reba McEntire, and Jennifer Aniston, who was dating Tate Donovan at the time) and also crossed over with the Aladdin animated series for one episode.

           Hercules does have a theme park presence: Hercules and Meg both appear as face characters in Fantasmic, Hades plays a prominent role in the Disney Villains line and stars as the Big Bad in the theme park interactive game attraction, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, and “A Star is Born” is the song that closes Disney’s Hollywood Studios every night.  To tell the truth, though, the area of the Disney Company that gives the most love to Hercules is the Disney Cruise Line.  The Cruise Line absolutely loves Hercules and its characters; it shows that love by featuring them prominently in their onboard stage shows.  Over on the Disney Wonder, there was Hercules: The MUSE-Ical which was a stage re-telling of the animated film with a bent towards the pop-culture reference laden humor and absolutely none of the more dramatic beats of the film.  Though the show closed in 2008, not much time later, the Disney Cruise Line debuted Villains Tonight, a stage show celebrating the colorful cast of scoundrels who make up the Disney Villains line.  Hosting the show as emcee is none other than Hades with some assistance from his minions, Pain and Panic.
 So my dear readers, who are your heroes?  Just remember Zeus’ words as you consider your answer: “For a true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.”  Look beyond the actors and the actresses, the sports stars and the rock stars, and think about the true acts of heroism that have inspired you to do the right thing.  Until next time (Mulan baby!), may we all find the courage to go the distance.
Author’s Note: I want to take a moment to dedicate this post to one of my readers: Ela.  Through all of the delays and waiting periods, she has consistently stuck with the blog, and has even sent an encouraging email my way a few times.  Hercules is one of her favorites, so know that while I wrote this I frequently had this thought: “I hope this one lives up to Ela’s expectations.”  Thanks so much for reading and for your enthusiasm, Ela.  I hope I did Hercules justice.