It’s so nice to meet new creative people and I was so happy when Melissa from Mouse on the Mind introduced me to Jeff from LEG+JCB, a blog about life and Disney. Before his recent trip to the parks, he sat down and watched every single movie in the Disney animated film canon. (Seriously, here’s proof.) If he’s not an expert on what is “underrated” I don’t know who is. I hope you enjoy his contribution to this fun series!
It’s kind of baffling to me why Hercules isn’t celebrated among the uppermost echelon of Disney animated films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and now Tangled. The New York Times gave it a glowing review, calling the film “pretty divine.” It had an extensive marketing campaign, including a Times Square parade and a mall tour complete with a baby Pegasus carousel. (Did anybody go to this? I remember dragging my mom to the Oakland Mall on a weeknight to see the “Learn How to Be An Animator” attraction.) “Go the Distance” was nominated for an Academy Award.
Yet, the film didn’t make even $100 million in its domestic release, less than its Disney predecessor and successor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. Sure, it had a direct-to-video mid-quel and subsequent short-lived animated series, but both of those have been left behind in the land of VHS. Like most of the late Disney Renaissance films, Hercules has suffered a frustrating home video life, only released on DVD once back some 12 years ago, with a crummy video transfer at that.
Why was—is—Hercules underappreciated? There are a number of factors you could point to; none are solely at fault but perhaps combined they paint a picture that is easier to understand. Hercules, much like its eponymous lead, faced challenges from nearly every direction.
You had the purists, who considered Disney’s loose interpretation of Greek myth to be a disservice to the original stories.
Then there was the animation. The Hershfield-esque designs by Gerald Scarfe (also responsible for the artwork for Pink Floyd’s The Wall) were at the same time much looser, much more geometric, and generally wackier than the more traditional, softer and realistic approaches prior Disney films.
And Meg. Meg, the female lead, is probably the most atypical of Disney female characters: she’s not a princess; she’s cynical; she dislikes men in general. Susan Egan provides her with a full, rich voice that is at times playful, seductive, and wounded. Meg’s character design is also very angular, with sharp eyebrows and lips and a wacky, nearly-impossible-to-imitate crop of hair. None of these are features of your stock Disney princess.
But it’s for all of these reasons and more that Hercules’s place in the Disney pantheon deserves to be reconsidered.
First of all, Meg is wonderfully nuanced, one of the most complex characters Disney has ever produced. She is emotionally distant at first, though knowingly makes full use of her sensuality to achieve her goals (this Disney Wiki page does a great job at describing Meg’s awareness of her own sexuality and its implications on her interactions with men). She doesn’t think much of Hercules at first, and is deeply conflicted when she realizes she’s developed feeling for the big lug. *** Against typical Disney tradition, too, Hercules and Meg aren’t married at the end of the film, and considering that Hercules renounces his place on Mount Olympus for her, she wouldn’t be a princess even if they were. Hercules’ decision to stay with Meg is an interesting reversal of the typical Disney gender dynamic: instead of a prince elevating (read: saving) a common woman, the woman in Hercules instead influences the prince to give up his higher status because she confirms the intrinsic value of the average person. This is a much different approach than, say, Cinderella or The Little Mermaid.
The animation, though very untraditional at the time by Disney standards, is marvelous. While Pocahontas started the shift away from the early Disney Renaissance animation style with a more simplistic approach, Hercules took that football and kicked it right out of the stadium. Think about the range in animation we see today, from “Phineas and Ferb” to “The Legend of Korra”; would Hercules seem so radically different now? The character designs are unique and eccentric, the colors employed bright and beautiful (I mean, who doesn’t love the little sparkle in Hera’s locks?), and the computer assist in the Hydra sequence complements the hand-drawn efforts nicely, instead of detracting from them. This is a film that begs for a quality Blu-ray transfer.
To hold the inaccurate depiction of Greek myth against the film would be to, well, ignore nearly all other film adaptations ever made; I mean, Jurassic Park the film is very different from the novel, but that doesn’t change the fact that, as an independent piece of entertainment, the film is just as satisfying. The same goes for Hercules, and I would argue that the screenwriters are very aware of the fact that they are deviating from the source material (how else would you characterize their subtle jab at The Disney Store?). The film is often very tongue-in-cheek (my favorite line comes from early in the film, when The Fates poetically prophesize about Hades’ plans for world domination. His response? “Ah, verse. Oy.”) Between the Herculade, Air-Herc sandals, and Hercules’ declaration, “I’m an action figure!”, it’s clear that the film offers up a self-awareness and commentary on pop culture that would come to be the standard for animated films in the 2000s. The best thing about Hercules’ commentary? It’s timeless. Merchandizing and aggrandizing celebrities will never go out of style; can the same be said for Shrek 2’s “American Idol” parody?
I also can’t talk about Hercules’ worth without mentioning Hades. Voiced like a slick-talking used car salesman by James Woods, Hades is a hilarious, captivating villain on the level of Ursula or Scar. You don’t necessarily root for him, but Hades oozes such wonderful, sleezy charisma that you can’t help but want to see more from him. Of all the Hercules characters, Hades is the one that seems to show up most frequently today in Disney parks and other Disney products: the Kingdom Heart video game series, the Fantasmic! show in Hollywood Studios, and the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom interactive game at Walt Disney World.
Lastly, and what is probably the most unappreciated element of this underappreciated film, is the music. Scored by uber-composer Alan Menken with lyrics by David Zippel, Hercules’ gospel-pop fusion is the catchiest Disney music this side of Aladdin. I’ll have snippets of “Zero to Hero” stuck in my head for hours, and if the climax of either “Go the Distance (Reprise)” or “A Star is Born” doesn’t send a chill up your spine…well, I just don’t know…
I still can’t wrap my head around why Hercules didn’t do well, or hasn’t found a larger audience over time. Perhaps being released during the latter years of the Disney Renaissance trapped the film in an unfair comparison to the stratospheric successes of movies like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. Maybe Hercules suffered from the first inclining of audience and studio indifference to hand-drawn animation. Nevertheless, it’s a fantastically funny and fun film, which should be measured not by its box office strength, but by the strength of its heart.