I have clear, distinct memories of my first viewing of almost all the films in this era, but Hercules is not one of them. While sometimes it seems like it’s one I haven’t seen as much, but at other times it feels like I’ve been watching it forever. (Ask William; I was quoting pretty much the whole thing.) Put simply: Hercules is just pure fun.
The story takes its inspiration loosely from classical mythology — a first for Disney, outside of some shorts in Fantasia. The birth of Hercules to Zeus and Hera throws a wrench into Hades’ plan to take over the cosmos. In an attempt to take baby Herc out of the picture, Hades enlists his henchmen to turn the babe mortal and kill him. Of course, they fail and leave our hero alive as a mortal, but a misfit with superhuman strength. He then spends the majority of the film figuring out who he is, where he belongs and how to be a true hero — all while Hades continues his plot to overthrow the gods.
While the story itself is pretty straightforward, where this film truly succeeds is in its screen and song writing. The nuances of mythology and the backdrop of ancient Greece provide ample comedic opportunity, and the writers are not shy to cash in. The one-liners are amazing: Thebes is described as the “Big Olive;” after a night out with Meg, Hercules proclaims, “And then that, that play, that, that, that Oedipus thing. Man, I thought I had problems;” and, my personal favourite, when Hermes declares, “I haven’t seen this much love in a room since Narcissus discovered himself.” Disney even pokes fun at itself with the line “It’s a small underworld, after all, huh?”
Evoking the tradition of a chorus in classic Greek theatre, the film is narrated (in song, of course) by a quintet of gospel-singing ladies. But the best example of Disney’s quick wit is Hades, who is sarcastic, irreverent and, dare I say it, enjoyable — qualities unbecoming to any other villain in the canon.
The script is also the gift that keeps on giving if you’re prompted to explore more of the underlying mythology. For example, in researching for this post, I discovered there is a Greek goddess named Nike, for victory. This knowledge turns the “Air Hercs” sandals into more than just a pop culture reference to Nike’s Air Jordans.
Disney inadvertently tangled with another popular ’90s brand, this time with one of Hades’ lines. After leading lady Meg helps Hades set a hydra on Herc, he gives her performance “two thumbs way, way up.” Of course, “two thumbs up” is a phrase popularized by Chicago critic duo Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert when they felt a film was particularly good. The clip was used in marketing for the film after it had received mostly favourable reviews. Siskel and Ebert felt their approval was implicit by the inclusion of this line in the advertising, despite Siskel actually giving the movie a thumbs-down. (You can watch their review here.) Disney ended up pulling the ads and issuing an apology to Siskel and Ebert.
The film’s animation style also has a distinct feel to it unlike anything else to this point. Production designer Gerald Scarfe was able to create unique character styles while maintaining an overall look for the film drawing on Greek tradition while allowing for some childish fun. The British illustrator is, of course, best known for his work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. As a big Pink Floyd fan myself, looking through some of the early character sketches — most evident is drawings of Hades and the Fates, and his influence can be seen throughout others like Phil and Herc — is pretty cool. But, in an interview with the Telegraph, Scarfe revealed some on-set frustrations with the animators. “A lot of them were not capable of copying my style; they just did the same old Disney thing,” he said.
Disney was also stretching their computer animation muscles pretty hard in this film, but not so much that CG sequences seem out of place. The scene where our hero battles the hydra is a good example of the complexity computer animation can achieve. A 1997 review of the film by Cory Doctorow notes that a network of Silicon Graphics workstations replicated a model of a single hydra head 30 times and then used existing and custom software to transport the hydra into animation cels. “The simpler cels, with only a single head, are rendered over 100 computers in an hour and a half. The monster cels, with all 30 heads, took 36 hours to render,” he wrote.
Reviews were generally positive and audiences helped propel the film to number 2 at the box office on its opening weekend. Hercules may not evoke feelings of that quintessential Disney magic, like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of its place in the Disney lineup. This extremely witty and all around likeable film never ceases to simply entertain.