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Pff. Hercules. What a poser. You want to talk about impossible labours? Try writing a comedic review about a comedy while looking after a sick baby, fighting off a stomach bug, grappling with unreliable internet connection and only three days to write the review because you’re going on holiday. Now there’s a challenge. Especially if it’s a good comedy. And I’ll admit, this is a funny movie. Maybe it’s just because it comes right after three of the most serious movies in the canon (yeah, Lion King is light-hearted in places but nothing that has that death scene gets to call itself jovial) but fair is fair, it goes for the yuks and it gets them more often than not.
Production started in 1994 under the directorship of Ron Clements and John Musker, the directing team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, the movie it most closely resembles. In fact, if I had to describe Hercules it would be, “Aladdin, but more.” Actually no, it would be “Aladdin, but too much.” Hercules sees Aladdin’s celebrity voice actors, heavy emphasis on comedy, deliberate anachronisms and pop culture references and raises the stakes like a wild-eyed gambler in a saloon who won’t listen to his wife pulling at his arm and screaming at him not to bet the farm, Lawence! The end result is that…that…
Aw hell, I can’t hold it in anymore…
ONE YEAR BITCHES!!!!!! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!
Sorry, where were we?
Oh right, Hercules. My point is, while Aladdin is overall a very fun and light movie, they still treated the story as something that mattered. You care about Aladdin and Jasmine, and while the genie might seem like a joke dispensing machine, he does actually get some quite affecting character beats.
Hercules though? The whole thing just comes off as such a lark that it’s kind of hard to give a damn about anything that happens. It’s an easy film to be entertained by. But not really an easy film to care about.
This represents Disney’s first foray into actual mythology rather than fairy tales, literature or legends. And no, a legend and a myth are not the same thing. In fact, let’s do a quick crash course on terminology (please let me do this, this is literally the only time my degree in Folklore has had any, even slightly, practical use).
Okay, so a fairy tale (or as folklorists prefer, a wonder tale) is set in a faraway place, a long time ago. It’s not about a real place, and it’s not about real people. It’s a fictitious tale told purely for enjoyment and usually has fantastical elements and magic and what have you. A legend, while also fictitious, takes place in a real place and time and features real people. So, for example, Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree is a legend. It never actually happened, but Washington was a real person and it’s set in a specific time and place, Colonial America. Finally, a myth is the remnant of a now extinct religion. Hercules is a myth because both he and Zeus were once genuinely worshipped as gods and the tales featuring them had the weight of religious belief behind them. Myths tend to be taken more seriously than legends or wonder tales and while wonder tales tend to be considered universal (which culture gave rise to Cinderella?) myths remain very closely linked to their native culture. This may explain why this movie is absolutely loathed in Greece, where its, shall we say loose, interpretation of the Hercules stories enraged the Greeks.
Was their ire justified? Let’s take a look.
The movie begins with the sonorous tones of Charlton Heston giving us the low down on Hercules before being interrupted by the five muses; Calliope, Clio, Melpomene, Terpsichore and Thalia (Lillias White, Vanéese E. Thomas, Cheryl E Freeman, La Chanze and Roz Ryan).
The muses tell Charlton that he’s really coming on a little too heavy for this movie, and that they’ll take over the narration from here on in. Charlton says they can take his narration from his cold dead hands…no, actually he gives the most unconvincing “You go, girl” in history and hands off. The muses are a lot of fun, and they get the bulk of the film’s songs which are pretty darn spiffy. Our first one, The Gospel Truth, gives us some backstory while setting up the Gospel infused tone of the movie. Alan Menken wrote the music for this one again, this time with lyrics by David Zippel. Before the decision was made to have the muses be Gospel singers, Disney briefly considered casting a well known pop group in the roles. Hmm…an all girl pop group who would have been popular in 1997. Who could they have been thinking of…OH JESUS NO!
The muses tell us that a long time ago, the world was ruled by the Titans until Zeus, king of the gods, laid the smackdown and imprisoned them beneath the ocean. This is rather unique in this movie, in that it kinda, sorta resembles something that actually happened in Greek Mythology.
Flash forward many thousands of years later, and Zeus is ruling over Mount Olympus and his wife Hera has just given birth to their son, Hercules.
Yeah. Hera’s Hercules’ mother in this one. Oh boy.
Alright, I’m not a huge Greek mythology buff. I mean, Greek mythology is fine. Y’know, if you’re stuck and you can’t get something truly awesome.
But even I have to take issue with just how blatantly they’re disregarding the original stories here. If you don’t know, in the myths Zeus fathered Hercules on a mortal woman because Zeus was essentially a massive sentient penis that managed to grow a beard. When it came to fathering bastards Zeus made Robert Baratheon look like Ned Stark, and Ned Stark look like Varys and if you don’t know what I’m talking about for GOD’S SAKE READ GAME OF THRONES. Zeus’ horndog tendencies were so pronounced they basically were one of the driving narrative forces of the entire canon. The eminent scholar Ernest Hilbert even did this convenient chart.
Also, in the original stories Zeus’ wife Hera had a less than forgiving attitude to his infidelities, enacting terrible vengeance against his mistresses and their children including Hercules. Hell, even his original Greek name “Herakles” was given to him in an attempt to deflect Hera’s wrath by naming him after her. It didn’t work, but then I don’t know why any reasonable person would expect it to. The point is, seeing Hera represented here as a loving mother cooing over the infant Hercules is a bit much to take, but fortunately your loyal Mouse is here to fix the movie. Basically, the trick to watching Hercules is to assume that Hera is secretly manipulating everyone behind the scenes to get Zeus and Hades to wipe each other out, kill Hercules and rule unchallenged as Empress of Olympus. Trust me, it makes it so much more entertaining.
So all the gods are gathered at Olympus for the baby shower and I do have to give credit to the character designs. You can tell pretty much instantly who’s supposed to be Bacchus and Poseidon and so on, even when most of them are never named onscreen. The animators have moved away from the realistic human models of Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame and the characters here have a much more cartoony look, based on the drawings of artist Gerald Scarfe.
Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samathan Eggar) thank the guests for their gifts and then present their son with their gift, a baby Pegasus named Steve. Sorry, Pegasus. He’s named Pegasus. While everyone is aawing over this we meet our villain, Hades, voiced by James Woods. Woods always lists Hades as one of his favorite roles, to the point where this A-list actor will voice Hades in anything; direct to DVD sequels, Saturday morning cartoons, video games…
…and it’s not hard to see why. Woods is clearly having an absolute blast with this part and his Hades is easily the best thing in the movie. In fact, there are parts where Hades absolutely carries this movie. Also, can we agree that Hades is not really a villain? I mean, the other gods treat him like crap, he’s been given the shittiest job in the pantheon…no wonder he’s a fuming sack of resentment just waiting for a brilliant mastermind to use him as her unwitting pawn.
Hades checks out of the party early and returns to the Land of the Dead. We meet his two sidekicks, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwaite) and Panic (Matt Frewer). As sidekicks, they’re pretty blatant Happy Meal bait but they do at least play a role in the story so I will tolerate them. We also meet the Fates, three wizened old hags who can see the future. We get a funny scene where Hades tries to hold a conversation with someone who already knows everything he’s going to say, and coaxes them into revealing his future. They tell him that his plot (yeah, sure his plot) to overthrow Zeus will succeed but that if Hercules faces him in battle, Hades will lose. Hades is understandably peeved at this, and reaches for the medicine cabinet where he keeps a tiny vial of potion that can apparently turn a god mortal.
Why, it’s new regular character Nit the Nit Picking Nit!
Fair question, but I actually think I can answer it. There’s just barely enough potion in the vial to turn Hercules mortal (he retains his strength because he didn’t drink the last drop) so I suppose we can assume if there was only just enough to de-deify a baby like Hercules, it would take a whole lot more to make a god the size and power of Zeus mortal. Now, if Hades could get his hands on more of it, then sure. Wouldn’t even be that difficult to poison him, you just disguise the potion as something with a vagina and he’d get around to it eventually.
Pain and Panic sneak into Olympus and manage to abduct Hercules. Zeus and Hera find the baby missing and Hera throws herself at the empty crib, crying and wailing and basically giving zero indication that this was all in the plan.
Down on the ground, Pain and Panic feed Hercules the formula but before he can drink it all they’re surprised by Amphitryon and Alcmene, a humble farmer and his wife who discover the superpowered child and decide to raise him as their own wait just a damn minute here!
Yeah, after this the Superman parallels come thick and fast. Come to think of it, they are so clearly more interested in telling a Superman story that Disney probably should have just approached DC for the rights and made a Superman film.
Flash forward a few years later and Hercules has grown into an awkward, gangly youth whose phenomenal strength makes him a freak in the eyes of the townspeople. After a trip into town where he accidentally destroys…town, Amphitryon and Alceme finally tell him that he’s adopted, and show him the medallion that was around his neck, which bears the symbol of the gods. Hercules declares that the gods will know who his parents are and sets out for the temple of Zeus. Which, I gotta say; Isn’t that like if he was found with a crucifix and his first thought was “Jesus will know!”
Anyway, Hercules sets off for the temple singing Go the Distance, possibly the most perfunctory, by the numbers “I want” song in the whole canon. Hercules reaches the temple and approaches the statue of Zeus. But something’s not quite right.
The statue of Zeus comes to life and Zeus tells Hercules that he’s his son, just like roughly sixty percent of Europe. Zeus tells Hercules that to retake his place in Mount Olympus he will have to become a great hero, and tells him to seek out Philoctetes, the trainer of heroes. He’s also reunited with Pegasus, who flies him off to Philoctetes’ island home.
Philoctetes (or Phil, voiced by Danny deVito) is a fat little satyr who’s introduced to us while perving on some nymphs. Which, fair enough, that is totally what satyrs did. There’s a reason why the male equivalent of nymphomania is called “satyriasis”. They’re among the randiest characters in Greek mythology, which is saying everything.
Hercules asks Phil to train him but Phil says he’s washed up, out of the game, yesterday’s news, he’s had it, he’s two days to retirement, forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.
Sorry, that string of clichés kinda got away from me.
See, apparently Phil trained all the great Greek heroes, but they all failed because of…well, let’s just chalk it up to hubris. If you want to know why someone died in Greek myth, chances are it was hubris. Phil had a dream of training the greatest hero of all, someone so great that the gods would create a constellation for him, but years of disappointment have taken their toll.
But Hercules says he won’t let Phil down, because he’s the son of Zeus. Obviously, the idea that this superhumanly strong teenager with a flying horse is the son of a god is just too ridiculous for a rational half man-half-goat to accept, and Phil tells him to screw off…
…and then tells him to screw right back on. Well, obviously we don’t want to waste too much time on Hercules’ training, so you know what that means! MONTAGE BABY!
His training complete, Herc pleads with Phil to be allowed to do some proper heroing, so Phil agrees to take him to Thebes. But on the way they hear a woman scream and Phil declares that it sounds like a classic DID (damsel in distress). They fly down to where Megara (Susan Egan) is being menaced by Nessus the river guardian, voiced by Jim Cummings.
Alright, I’m probably going to catch a lot of shit for this but…I don’t really like Meg.
Okay no, that’s not exactly true. Meg’s a lot of fun and Susan Egan gives a great performance. I suppose it would be more fair to say that I’m annoyed by Meg.
Look, I know I’m all about strong female characters and they are clearly trying so hard here to subvert the typical Disney heroine tropes, even going so far as drawing Megara more in the style of Maleficent or the Evil Queen than Ariel or Belle.
But that’s the thing. They are clearly trying so hard, to the point that it kind of comes off a little bit desperate. Half the time it feels like the filmmakers are waving their arms and yelling “Look! Look! A Disney princess who doesn’t want to be rescued! She’s a tough, independent woman who don’t need no man, Girlfriend!” It’s the kind of the over the top, trying-too-hard-without-actually-really-getting-it kind of feminism I’d normally associate with…with…OH JESUS NO!
And I wouldn’t mind so much, but Disney already subverted the standard Disney heroine. Hard. And it was awesome.
Well anyway, Hercules tries to rescue her and she says she can handle it and he’s all “Whaaaaaaa?” Nessus attacks Hercules but Herc manages to clean his clock without too much trouble. Hercules is clearly smitten with Megara (who nicknames him “Wonder Boy”), much to Phil’s annoyance and Pegasus’…homocidal jealously?
Herc offers Meg a lift, but she turns him down, saying “I’m a big tough girl. I tie my own sandals and everything.” They depart and Meg goes wandering through the woods where she comes across the usual Disney forest detritus.
“Aw, how cute.” says Meg “A couple of rodents looking for a theme park.”
Okay, I may be warming to her slightly.
But it turns out these rodents looking for a theme park are actually Pain and Panic.
This is when we get our big twist. For you see, Meg, who we’ve known for all of three minutes maybe, is actually working for Hades!
Hades casually asks Meg why she hasn’t recruited Nessus to his team and she explains that Nessus made her an offer she had to refuse yay implied bestiality.
Hades says that in punishment he’s adding two years to her sentence and she says that it wasnt’ her fault, and Hercules interfered. When Hades hears that Hercules is still alive?
Well, yeah, but…
Um…well, see that can be explained by…
What is it SMOWE?
Oh, well, he’s new. This is Nit the Nit Picking Nit.
I know, but you see, it’s complicated.
He’s tough to work into jokes, okay? I’m trying!
Alright guys, please. We’ll talk about this later.
Meanwhile, Hercules, Pegasus and Phil arrive in Thebes, which is apparently suffering from unexplained plagues and natural disasters. Hmm. Thebes suffering from terrible plagues and mysterious storms? That actually sounds familiar, why would…oh Jesus.
The people of Thebes won’t give Herc the time of day, thinking that he’s just an amateur, but he gets his chance to prove himself when Meg comes running through the crowd wailing that two boys are trapped in a mine and since Lassie hasn’t been born yet, it’s up to Hercules. He arrives at the mine with a crowd of spectators in toe and lifts the massive rock blocking the entrance to the mine. The two children thank Hercules and run off, but it turns out that they were really Pain and Panic in disguise.
From the shadows, Hades and Megara watch as something comes slithering out of the now opened mine…the best CGI Hydra 1997 had to offer!
Okay, fair is fair. While the CGI hasn’t aged well at all (hell, even compared to earlier Disney films like The Lion King) the Hydra is a very memorable, creepy design that helps distract from that.
Anyway, after a surprisingly violent battle (as in Hercules gets swallowed and then knifes his way out of the hydra’s neck like a fucking chestburster) Hercules decapitates the hydra and the crowd goes wild. But Hades is remarkably blasé about the whole thing, saying “Relax boys, it’s only halftime.”
Sure enough, faster than you can say “Hail Hydra!”, it grows three head and Herc is fighting for his life, slashing at heads left right and centre until…
Now facing a whopping thirty headed hydra, Herc gets pinned against the cliff and is about to be eaten but instead he causes a rockslide that crushes the hydra and seemingly Herc too.
Phil is heartbroken, saying “There goes another one. Just like Achilles.”
Phil, you and I remember the Illiad very differently.
But no, it turns out that Hercules is still alive and he’s carried off by a rapturous crowd, overjoyed that he’s defeated a threat entirely of his own making. Hades is super pissed, Megara is quietly impressed and the muses are feelin’ funky so we now get Zero to Hero, the movie’s big showstopper.
Fucking awesome song. Probably the most flat out fun song in a Disney movie since Under the Sea. We get some of the best animation in the whole movie showing how Hercules becomes the biggest celebrity in Greece while the muses sing the whip smart lyrics over a propulsive gospel tune that you keep thinking has to wind down but instead just gets bigger and faster. It doesn’t let up, constantly topping itself until the crescendo. Great stuff.
So cut to a few months later, and Hades is starting to get seriously antsy because he’s got twenty-four hours before Hercules is fated to foil his big takeover. Having sent every monster in the annals of Greek myth after him and failed, Hades reasons that Hercules has to have a weakness.
No, Hades decides to use Meg to seduce him. We learn that Meg sold her soul to Hades in exchange for her lover’s life, and he then ran off with some bimbo, breaking her heart and leaving her bitter and cynical. Which of course is what happened to every feminist.
Alright, sarcasm aside, this scene is really well done. Hades passes Meg one of the Hercules brand urns he’s been using as target practice and then the camera zooms in close on her face as he whispers that if she does this for him she’ll gain her freedom. She says nothing, but we hear the sound of the urn shattering on the ground as she drops it in shock. It’s very cool.
Meanwhile, Hercules visits Zeus in the temple, and says he’s ready to rejoin the gods. I mean, he’s got an action figure for Christ’s sake, how much more heroic can you get?
Zeus rather sheepishly says that, while his accomplishments have been truly Norris-like, he still hasn’t proven himself a true hero. Hercules asks what more can he do? Zeus tells him to “Look into your heart”, which of course is Disneyese for “Fucked if I know”.
Hercules is bummed, but he perks up when Megara pays a visit to his mansion they go see the sights. Later that night, they’re relaxing in Herc’s garden and she subtly tries to get him to tell her if how he gets his strength. That’s right. She wants to ask Wonder Boy what is the secret of his powers. What powers you ask? How about the power to kill a Gorgon from fifteen feet away? WITH MIND BULLETS?! No, actually she tries to suss out his weaknesses through saucy double entendres: “No trick knees? Ruptured….discs?”
It is utter filth.
Okay, I take back what I said about Meg earlier.
Her first few scenes are annoying but once the character settles down, her scenes with Herc are actually really sweet. She’s starting to fall for him, and really feeling guilty over betraying him to Hades. They’re about to kiss but Phil and Pegasus arrive and bust it up. Phil is furious, and Pegasus is just hurting so bad right that his best buddy would abandon him for some chick.
Pegasus flies off and Meg is left alone in the garden. Now it’s time for I won’t say I’m in Love, possibly my favourite song in the movie (depends what mood I’m in, it’s this or Zero to Hero). It’s an anti-love song, where Meg loudly proclaims that she’s not in love with Hercules, while the muses sing back and basically imply that if you believe that, they have a bridge to sell you.
Hades appears and tries to pump Meg for info on Hercules, but she’s not playing any more and tells him to get another pigeon see?
I…I don’t know why I went Chicago gangster there, sorry.
Unfortunately Phil, who fell of Pegasus and was knocked unconscious and is only now coming to, overhears their conversation but thinks that Meg is still working for Hades. He runs off to warn Hercules and Megara defiantly tells Hades that he can’t beat Hercules because he has no weaknesses. But Hades stares right at her and says “I think he does, Meg. I truly think he does.”
You see where he’s going with this, right?
Phil tries to warn Hercules that Megara is up to no good and Hercules reacts rationally to Phil bad mouthing his dame by sockin’ him right in the kisser. Sorry, I don’t know why that keeps happening. Herc tries to say he’s sorry but Phil’s not hearing it and tells Herc he’s on his own.
Meanwhile, Pegasus gets lured away by a sexy Pegasus that escaped from some brony’s deviant art page. He’s lured into a stable where the pegasus suddenly splits in two and sets up shop in your subconscious for the rest of your goddamn life.
Pain and Panic imprison Pegasus, Peter Piper picks a peck of pickled peppers, and Hades hones in on our hapless hero, Hercules.
Hades approaches Hercules and offers him a deal (oh, and this is apparently the first time they’ve met which means that Hercules the Animated Series isn’t canon oh how awful): If Hercules gives up his power for twenty four hours, Meg goes free.
Herc’s no fool, and he can tell that we’re about five seconds away from an appearance by Mr Martin Lawrence, but he doesn’t really have a choice. He makes Hades swear that Meg will be unharmed, and Hades agrees, even going so far as to say that if anything does happen to Meg, Herc will get his powers back. Wow, that’s…nice of him.
Hades then drops the bombshell, Meg was working for him the whole time. Herc is devastated, and Hades flies off to free the Titans now that the planets have aligned.
The Titans attack Olympus and Hera does a masterful job of looking surprised.
Meanwhile, one of the Titans, a Cyclops (because, what there’s a difference?) attacks Thebes and Hercules has to stop him despite now being as weak, fleshy and flabby as an internet reviewer.
It goes about as well as you’d expect. Actually worse. You were probably expecting less of Hercules being used as a hacky sack. Meg frees Pegasus and they go off and catch Phil just before he boards the barge back to his island. They convince him to come back and help Herc, and Phil manages to give him some of that sweet, sweet pep. Determined not to give up, Hercules blinds the Cyclops, ties his legs together and causes him to trip and fall over a cliff. But as he goes over he knocks down a pillar and Meg gets crushed by it while saving Hercules. Meg crushed by a pillar? Oh no! But she’s still hot right?
Of course, because Meg got hurt Hercules’ powers now return to him thanks to that proviso that Hades just stuck in there out of the generosity of his heart. Hercules races to Olympus and turns the tide of the battle, freeing the gods and throwing the Titans into freaking outer space. Hades retreats, but calls to Hercules that it’s too late for Meg. Sure enough, back in Thebes, Meg has passed away.
But Hercules, like the mythical character he’s based on, is not one to accept the death of a loved one.
Of course, this is back when the earth was still flat, so instead of flying backwards around the globe to reverse time Hercules storms Hades’ kingdom and demands that he return Meg. Instead Hades, shows Hercules the river of the dead where Meg is now floating. Oh, and I gotta say the continuity in this scene is atrocious.
So now Hercules over Hades a deal, he’ll take Meg’s place. Hades is all over that, so he gives the following terms “You get her out? She goes, you stay.” <——
Hercules swims through the river to reach Meg and starts ageing rapidly. But just before he dies he becomes immortal, because he’s finally become a true hero. Hercules, now glowing with divine light, carries Meg’s soul out of the river and leaves. I’m sorry, what were the terms of the deal? It was literally just a paragraph ago. Christ, I even marked it with an arrow!
Yeah, he got her out, but he still has to stay! That was the deal? What the hell Disney? Is the moral that you don’t have to honour your promises once you’re in a position of power? That might makes right? That the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must?
Looks like! Hercules just walks out of there, and when Hades tries to stop him, Hercules punches him until his face is filled with troubling symbolism.
Hades pleads with Herc to put in a good word with his Dad, and gets punched into the river of the dead for his trouble. Herc returns Meg’s soul to her. They travel to Olympus where Hercules is given a hero’s welcome and finally reunited with his father and mother.
But Hercules tells Zeus that a life without Meg would be no life at all and opts to remain on earth. Zeus and Hera are cut up about this…for like two seconds tops (hey, like you’d want your eighteen year old son moving back in?) and the movie ends with the muses singing A Star is Born.
Hercules had a pretty disappointing box office take, and it’s now usually remember as one of the lesser Renaissance films. I don’t really disagree with that. It’s fun, and there’s a lot to enjoy, but it’s a pretty light and insubstantial movie all in all.
Nice character designs, and a return to the energy infused, almost Warner Bros esque feel of Aladdin. Some sloppy continuity costs marks though.
The Leads: 14/20
Hercules is a very likeable lead, and Meg grew on me as the movie went on.
The Villain: 17/20
Woods is hilarious.
Supporting Characters: 12/20
Pain and Panic bug me, Pegasus is fine, Phil is okay. Pretty average all in all.
The Music: 17/20
Some really great songs here, some of my all time favourites actually.
FINAL SCORE: 75%
NEXT TIME: Let’s get down to business…
NEXT UPDATE: 05 September 2013
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading!