‘Hercules’ Reinvented the Greek Hero 20 Years Ago

The underrated Disney movie’s script stays fresh and strange two decades later.
By  · Published on June 26th, 2017

The underrated Disney movie’s script stays fresh and strange two decades later.

Tomorrow Hercules, my personal favorite of the ‘90s Disney movies, turns twenty years old. Aside from being personally distressing, this anniversary presents the opportunity to look at how Hollywood has treated the hunky half-deity in the years since and how the movie has aged as a whole. In discussing Hercules, I’ll also be talking about his Greek origins but I refuse to call him “Heracles” because the films almost always maintain his Roman name while keeping everything around him very Greek. It’s a linguistic paradox but then again we’re just talking about very beefy cartoons, so who’s counting?

In the years after the Disney film’s release, a few others have tried tackling the mythological hero. Perhaps the most bizarre was a kid’s show called Young Hercules starring Ryan Gosling that lasted for fifty episodes. If anyone has a DVD of this show, I promise to watch it and report back on how strong Gosling seems.

However, the biggest attempt at a Herculean comeback was over fifteen years later.

The great Hercules dual of 2014 between The Legend of Hercules, a Renny Harlin film starring stoic beefcake Kellan Lutz and Brett Ratner’s Dwayne Johnson vehicle became a Grecian Pumping Iron-style real life flex-off when they were released months apart. These sorts of face-offs aren’t uncommon in the film world (remember Antz and A Bug’s Life?), but there’s always a clear winner. The Rock’s film won out because, well, duh, he’s The Rock and it wasn’t Baywatch, so it was mathematically certain to at least be a moderate success. But both films leaned hard into the doofy meathead action that one might expect from a tale about history’s most jacked hero. The animated Hercules – rife with humor, heart, and a healthy dose of mythos – is still by far the best treatment the character’s ever gotten in modern film, though it’s not quite true to the real legend.

Disney’s 35th animated feature is certainly inspired by the myths of the hero even if its accuracy is suspect. In fact, the Greeks hated it so much that Disney canceled a planned open-air premiere in Athens. But the historical tales of Hercules are, like most Greek myths, more sordid than an episode of Jerry Springer. Would the Greeks have been happy with Zeus’s adulterous affair with Alcmene and Hercules’s descent into madness during which he kills his own children? Or what about his countless male lovers? Sure they give Herc Pegasus, who historically was only ridden by Perseus and Bellerophon, but I’d rather kids later learn that Disney combined mythological figures than being confronted with how horny everyone was in Ancient Greece.

Besides its gospel music, it takes artistic liberties in service of story and kid-friendliness, like the most recent film that directing duo Ron Clements and John Musker tackled for Disney, Moana. Here they also skewed a bit of mythology for the sake of the kids. Māui (voiced, appropriately enough, by Dwayne Johnson) dies because he tries to prank a goddess named Hine-nui-te-pō and gets crushed to death by her vagina teeth. So I’m pretty much fine with Disney altering myths here and there.

Moana also invests heavily in a sense of place, enveloping the audience in culture derived from music, color, and design. The swirling Ionic volutes atop Hercules’s Olympian columns are just as transportive as Moana’s crashing waves and tattooed islanders. Hercules still used primarily Western forms (though it also includes the first positive depictions of black women in Disney’s history), but the architecture and landscape were undeniably Grecian. The script constantly quips about its location, adapting one-liners to fit its period. It’s one of the smartest ’90s Disney films due to its dedicated interweaving of Greek mythology into its humor. What other kids movie just drops quotes like “I could see through that in a Peloponnesian minute” or has the Fates extol the coming virtues of indoor plumbing?

Aside from its Michael Bolton-tastic ballads and exhilarating, Hercules-ogling Muses, the star of the film is its quick-witted script whose heroine takes more from The Lady Eve than the typically banal Disney princess mainstays. In between The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan, Hercules was much lighter and goofier than its peers at the time. Its pop-culture references weren’t limited to cutaway side characters – though Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer as Pain and Panic certainly do their part – because most of its plot revolved around the seductions of monetized branding.

Superstardom comes with heroism, and from there, the deals. The aim was to make Hercules the Michael Jordan of Ancient Greece and in achieving this, the film finds a strange and fascinating conflict of capitalism and star power lodged inside a grand tale of mysticism, gods, and jealousy. Speaking of, its villain – in a refreshing change of pace – was a hilarious sleazeball rather than a menacing madman. Of course, it took James Woods to play Hades like he was an ‘80s coke guy (please don’t sue me, James Woods).

The rest of the cast is equally stacked: Danny DeVito’s Philoctetes is the best Jew the satyrs never had. Whether he’s complaining about Achilles’ “furshlugginer heel” or calling Thebes “The Big Olive” (if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere), the grumbly half-goat is such a weird and brilliant character to lead Tate Donovan’s wide-eyed performance as Hercules. Rip Torn, Wayne Knight, Hal Holbrook, Charlton Heston, and a slew of Tony-winners round out a cast still indicative of the classical casting methods of Disney animation. But let’s talk about Meg.

Susan Egan (who now stars on Steven Universe) plays Meg with the kind of detached worldliness that prevented her from initially being cast, as her role as Belle in the Broadway Beauty and the Beast tainted her persona with innocence. Meg is a screwball smartass that checks out Hercules’s body with the same frequency as the Muses who correct each other’s nomenclature: Hunk-ules or nothing, thank you. The film feels comfortable making a male the object of desire, someone to lust after who may have a good heart but a bumbling disposition. Ok, maybe this movie is pretty horny. But in a fun way!

And that, along with Meg’s withering wit and exhaustion with the patriarchy (“Well, you know how men are. They think ‘No’ means ‘Yes’ and ‘Get lost’ means ‘Take me, I’m yours’”), is a refreshing bit of progressiveness in cartoons that almost always have a decidedly conservative message. Sure she settles down with Hercules, but at least her song is “I Won’t Say I’m In Love” rather than the cheesy ballad “I Can’t Believe My Heart” that was originally assigned to her character during production. This weird combination of classical storytelling and oddball influences came together in an idiosyncratic product that delighted a very specific audience of nerdy kids.

While a relative disappointment at the box office (making around $100 million less than predecessor Pocahontas), the film went on to inspire an animated prequel series that won James Woods an Emmy. It’s also a rare instance of a Disney animation that has a better script than animation style, which does wonders for revisits. While some of the computer-assisted graphics feel a bit wonky compared to the classic beauty of the impressionistic forests in Bambi, the sheer cleverness, and speed with which Hercules moves make it one of the most rewatchable Disney films.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).