So, Disney’s Hercules is a bit of a weird movie. Even weirder for a Disney animated feature. I mostly added it to our watch list because it’s streaming on Netflix. But, I’m actually really glad that I did. It kinda tanked at the box office, but honestly, it’s not that bad. So what went wrong and what went right?
Technical Breakdown of Hercules
Act 1: The story opens with the Muses, filling in a narrator role, and singing to the audience that this will be the story of Hercules (very similar to the opening of Beauty and the Beast, but more like Aladdin). The “Gospel Truth” is an homage to the classical Greek chours modernized with a gospel spin and attempts to set the tone, a modernized classic. Then we flashback to Hercules birth. Hades attempts to kill the son of Zues as a baby by turning him mortal because Hercules will thwart his plan to overthrow Olympus in 18 years (such a specific number). This establishes the central conflict – Hercules vs Hades. The assassination doesn’t quite work, unbeknownst to Hades. Hercules is cast out of Olympus and raised by mortals. As an awkward teen, Hercules discovers that he is the son of Gods, and to become a God himself, the subplot, or B-Story*, he must become a True Hero. Act 1 ends with the number “Go the Distance” and the establishment of the Hero Theme. Act 1 is almost entirely exposition and characterization of both Hercules and Hades. I also suspect a secondary theme of Place in Society.
Act 2: Hercules meets Phil (who desires to be a Hero by association), and together they prep Herc for becoming a Hero through a musical montage “One Last Hope.” Now, properly trained, and just a bit older, Phil and Herc head to Thebes to prove himself a hero. On the way, he saves a damsel who wasn’t really in distress. Meg is unimpressed by Herc, but finds his naivety charming, creating a romantic subplot. After Herc leaves, it is revealed that Meg is an agent of Hades, putting her in direct conflict with Herc. Herc and Phil make it to Thebes, where Herc battles the Hyrdra. Upon success, Herc is catapulted into fame and wealth in the “Zero to Hero” musical montage, though, he has not become a True Hero. Interestingly, Herc has a new Place in Society, polar opposite to what he was before. Herc has found his place, but it does not fulfill him. Meanwhile, Meg is sent by Hades to uncover weaknesses, where she “Won’t say [she’s] in Love.” Hades, realizing that their love is actually Herc’s weakness leverages it against Herc. If Herc gives up his strenght, than Hades will release Meg. Herc agrees, though, feels betrayed upon learning Meg worked for Hades all along, combining the romantic subplot and main plot together.
Act 3: Hades releases the titans, and powerless, Herc goes off to face them. He is all but defeated, when Meg sacrifices herself to save him from a falling pillar. Her sacrifice undoes Hades’ deal, and Herc then proceeds to stop the titans, preventing Hades’ take-over, and resolving the main plot. Hades, seeing his shot at revenge, takes Meg’s soul, and once again leverages it over Herc. Herc can save her if he can reach her in the River Stix. Of course, it’s a death trap. Herc agrees, and it’s his sacrifice that ascends him into godliness, resolving the True Hero theme. Leaving Hades utterly defeated, Hercules and Meg ascend to Olympus where Herc learns that he cannot be a god and be with Meg. He chooses her, resolving the romantic subplot and redefining his role and its theme.
In terms of structure, Hercules is really complex. Several plotlines are expertly woven together. A story of being a hero. A story of finding one’s place. A story of love. It deals with a fascinating take on the definition of a Hero.
The Heroic Theme: What’s Amazing about Hercules
In fact, thematically, Hercules may be one of Disney’s greatest films.
Hercules’s journey from “Zero to Hero” is quite complex. He starts as an good-meaning but awkward youth. His unnatural strenght makes him an outcast, and eventually he learns that he is an outcast because he has a greater purpose. Initially, it’s his desire to fit in, become part of something, is what propels his good deeds. After growing, he learns to control his awkwardness, then proceeds to do good deed to please his father, Zues. Herc is seeking a traditional sense of being a hero: saving others from great evils. His drive to be a hero comes from his desire to find his place in the world.
Slaying the monsters and completing his own trials aren’t enough to make him a God/True Hero, and he finds it unsatisfying. The standard expectation of heroic actions do not fulfill the True Hero requirement. This could be because he is doing heroism for someone else, for apporval. His motive for his actions are selfish. This is also paralleled in Phil’s desire to create a hero. Phil drives Herc on because PHIL desires fame.
Finally, Herc is put on the line when he loses what defines him as a hero – his strength. In what is his most heroic action thus far, Hercules enters a no-win situation against the Titans. There is another interesting phenomenon going on too. The people of Thebes have come to rely on Hercules, meaning they no longer flee during danger. They view him as a savior, and they nearly are destroy because of their reliance on him.
His strenght isn’t restored until Meg commits an her own act of Heroism, saving Herc from death, and resulting in hers. Herc will later parallel this action. His sense of duty to his Godly family and his destiny compel him to defeat the titans before attending to Meg (and ultimately missing her last moments). Yet, defeating the Titans isn’t what makes him a Hero. At this point, defeating monsters is really more of a job. Heroism is not defined by career.
Herc only achieves his True Hero status by facing impossible odds to save the person who matters most to him. His sacrifice for Meg, when no one is watching, when there’s no expectations are what makes him a hero. The movie defines his sacrifice by saying that it’s not grandiose gestures, or physical strength, that make someone a hero, but rather the small ones. The strength of one’s own will. The gestures no one sees, and done without reward. A True Hero doesn’t need super strength.
Then he gives his new found godliness up because he learns that being a hero isn’t what he wanted anyway. He just wanted his own place, which he’s now found, and it’s not on Olympus.
This theme is deep and thought provoking. Almost every scene in the movie works towards this theme. Heroism is questioned and criticized throughout, until it makes it final statement at the climax. Then it continues through the resolution because what it’s not the rewards of being a hero that ultimately makes Herc happy. The theme is so integral that it cannot be separate from the story.
So why did it fail?
Because it does fail. Hercules is not considered on of Disney’s great films. It wasn’t a runaway box office success. It didn’t spawn numerous sequels or successful TV series. I believe I know why.
It’s the source material that causes everything to fall apart. By choosing to adapt an ancient Greek myth, it’s pigeon-holed into a setting that doesn’t really fit it. The Gospel musical style and Greek Urn artistic style are at odds.The Greek design doesn’t really come across either. I’ve been to Greece, and nothing in that movie makes me think of it or its aesthetics.
Look at Herc’s character design. What he hell is he wearing? No matter how you spin it, it looks like he’s wearing a gold dress. And his red hair and superman curl? Um, not feeling very Greek at all to me.
The movie continues to struggle to fit its Greek mold by giving us iconic Greek monsters. Then bastardizing the mythology. At the time of this film, Hercules: The Legendary Journey was quite successful. And while that show may not have stayed true to the myths, it didn’t butcher them like Disney did. It also meant that Geek myth was at the top of everyone’s mind in the mid-90s.
Hercules is at it’s heart a superhero movie. If you changed the setting, and set it someplace like, I don’t know, New York? Got rid of the mythological trappings, and gave it a radioactive burst, and you’d have Superman. If it had just changed its setting, relinquished the Greek inspiration and accepted that it’s a superhero movie, I think Hercules could have been one of Disney’s best. But it didn’t, so we have an odd mix of awkward animation and excellent storytelling.