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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.