Virginia: Welcome back to A Decade Of, in which we’re chronicling the Disney Renaissance period one film at a time. Today, we’ll be looking at Hercules, Disney’s second attempt at adapting characters from Greek Mythology, after the Pastoral Symphony segment of the original Fantasia. Hercules would be the studio’s most comedic venture since Aladdin, which is unsurprising as John Musker and Ron Clements directed both films in sequence. In my opinion, this movie is a very mixed product overall, partially thanks to its ill-suited and seemingly random influences. Hercules takes cues from Superman: The Movie and Rocky, while its music is a mixture of gospel, Motown, and heroic anthems. I love the film’s overall look and how unique it is among the canon, being designed by Gerald Scarfe, the artist behind Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Some of the characters and songs are good, but I would argue that there are just as many bad and mediocre elements. Hercules is a film that I enjoy, but it’s far from one of my favorites. What do you think, Munir?
Munir: I can agree to most of what you say, but Hercules is a film that I enjoy immensely, despite its many flaws. It’s also worth noting that this was the last movie from the studio that Alan Menken scored until Home on the Range in 2004. The lyrics are by David Zippel, and I have to say that I really love the gospel vibe they give to the music. I also like most of the songs (“One Last Hope” is not very enjoyable, but it’s no “A Guy Like You”). As you say, there’s a tonal disparity in the film, particularly with many pop culture references that worked very well in Aladdin but not so much here. Even so, I think the good outweighs the bad, and the heart of the film is in the right place. I also like most of the characters, my favorites being Meg and Hades. Hercules is a tad bland, but he’s a compelling character, and Phil goes back and forth from annoying to enjoyable and helpful. Pain and Panic are funny sidekicks as well. I also think that some elements don’t work mainly because Clements and Musker were practically cajoled in doing this film. They wanted to do Treasure Planet (their passion project), and Katzenberg told them that they could make it if they first did this one. I don’t think Clements and Musker phoned it in, but maybe they didn’t feel as strongly for it as they did their other projects.
V: I think you have that exactly right; Hercules was merely their last step to get to Treasure Planet. I think it’s ridiculous the hoops the studio forced two of their most successful directors jump through to make the film of their dreams, but as we know, Treasure Planet was ultimately a massive flop. Getting back to Hercules, Meg and Hades are also my favorite characters! Meg’s song “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” is my favorite song in the film, and one of my favorite scenes altogether. Susan Egan is incredibly snarky as Meg, but very sweet once she starts to change for the better after meeting Hercules. Hades is hilarious, and James Woods is perfectly cast as this very unconventional take on the God of the Dead. I do like Pain and Panic a lot more than the sidekicks in the prior two films, but I’m not a fan of Phil. I like Danny DeVito, but this character is just unlikeable to me. He’s a jerk, a smartass, and downright creepy in his interactions with women throughout the film. As for Hercules, I think Tate Donovan turns in an excellent vocal performance, but his motivation is muddled, and they made him too cartoonishly stupid to be sympathetic. He says he wants to be a hero so that “The crowds will cheer when they see [his] face,” and I just find this desire for adulation so dislikable. The film eventually says that a hero is measured by the strength of his heart, but Hercules never really learns to be selfless or anything. He doesn’t really have an arc. as the film acts like he was never doing anything wrong; he just saves the woman he loves and is declared a hero for it. Megara is the most dynamic character in the movie, and I only wish her love and character development were kick-started by an equally fascinating character.
M: I have to disagree with some things. But first, I do agree that Phil is the weak link in the film for the reasons you say. However, I always like the ending when Zeus makes a Hercules constellation, and Phil cries when he sees it. Now, Meg, as you say, is the most realized character in the film. I also like that she’s different from the other Disney female characters. For starters, this one already has a history when the movie begins. She’s not the wide-eyed, virginal, and naive woman that most Disney female characters are. She had a boyfriend and a crappy relationship and made a bad choice. She is a sort of femme fatale, but with a big heart. I also like that she’s a cynic and uses it to mask the pain she has inside. Her song, as you stated, is the best in the film and perfectly encapsulates the conflict she is having inside. And, in the end, when she sacrifices herself to save Hercules, she shows how sensitive and big-hearted she really is. Hades is also a hoot as the villain. He’s quick-witted and a fast-talker. I also love his tantrums when he sets himself on fire. As you said, James Woods is perfectly cast there (too bad he’s an asshole in real life). However, regarding Hercules, I don’t agree with some points you made. His song indeed talks about being adored by everyone, but it doesn’t bother me because he’s an outcast and a teenager. Aside from his parents, everyone else thinks he’s a freak, and I think that what he wants is to be popular (something most teenagers want). Also, I think his naivete is an excellent contrast to Meg’s cynicism and a nice reversal of roles. For once, it’s the male who is the wide-eyed, innocent person instead of the female (something that’s very common in both animated and live-action films). Meg is the one that knows about the world while Hercules is just starting. That’s why I like the scene when Hades tells him the truth about Meg. His eyes and his whole demeanor change. He is witnessing things he didn’t know about, like betrayal and lying. Now he knows that not everything is good or rosy just because he fights monsters. I also believe that he’s hailed as a hero because he was willing to die to rescue Meg. Of course, this being Disney, he wouldn’t have died, but I think it’s a nice character arc where he starts as someone who wants to be adored (something that feels right because most Gods in the Greek Mythology are selfish pricks who love to be adored by humans) and ends up knowing that the world is not perfect and that he’d rather just be with the woman he loves than be a mighty God. Sacrificing his godhood to be with Meg is a nice caper to his story.
V: I agree in theory that this reversal of the gender roles is a compelling prospect, especially in a Disney film. I think Megara’s character progression is spot-on. But the level to which they make Herc naive and unintelligent is just too exaggerated. It ceases to be believable or relatable and becomes more of a running gag. For example, I like Star-Lord in the Marvel films because, while he’s not very smart, he’s not unbelievably stupid, and it’s not his defining character trait. I’m not saying that the filmmakers meant to make Hercules a character defined by stupidity or naivete; that’s just an observation on how it makes me feel as a viewer.
M: Fair enough. I don’t think he’s defined by stupidity, but I guess that’s entirely subjective. Let’s talk about some of the scenes. I really like the beginning. As told by the Muses, I like how they set the tone of the film and explain rapidly and efficiently about the Titans and Hercules’s birth and particular case. This could’ve been endless and boring exposition, but I think the filmmakers handle it well. I also like the fight with the Hydra. It’s thrilling, and despite the age of the old CGI, that doesn’t feel dated. “Zero to Hero” is also a very fun song and montage, and, of course, “I Won’t Say I’m In Love” is amazing.
V: “I Won’t Say I’m In Love” is definitely one of my favorite scenes; I love the interplay between Meg and the Muses. We rarely get to see a Disney character who doesn’t want to fall in love, and Meg is in outright denial when this sequence begins. I also really love it when, after pushing Hercules out of the way and being crushed by the pillar herself, she offers the explanation that “people do crazy things when they’re in love,” a sentiment Hercules later echoes back to her. Meg is such a great character, and I love the transformation she goes through. I think she’s the only Disney love interest who starts out as a villain. I also really like it when she says sometimes it’s better to be alone because nobody can hurt you. Meg gets some of the film’s most effective lines, simply and quickly telling you a lot about her character and outlook on life. “Zero to Hero” is probably my second favorite song in the film; I love the visuals and the energy behind it. The Muses are voiced by some tremendous vocalists. I agree with you about the fight with the Hydra. I like Charleton Heston’s initial narration, and it is funny when the Muses cut him off, but I almost wish he could have been further incorporated. Pretty much all of Hades’ scenes are fantastic and hilarious as well.
M: I don’t know if you agree to this, but I think Hercules and Meg are a very compelling couple because they both learn from each other. Hercules learns that the world is not all rosy and that his naivete and selfish understanding of love is wrong, while Meg learns to open up again and that not all people are bad. I think both were the extreme opposite of each other, and by the end of the film, they met in the middle. Both are outcasts in their own way at the beginning. Hercules wants to be adored and popular while Meg wants to be free and just forget about humanity. In the end, they both learn about a healthy form of love and what sacrifice means. I think they are similar to Rapunzel and Eugene in Tangled. Although, in that movie, Rapunzel is the wide-eyed, naive one while Eugene is the cynic. However, in both films, they learn from each other, and they save each other at the end (literally and figuratively). That’s why I also like Tangled and its leads.
V: You have an interesting point, and I would agree more so if the film played more with the concept of Hercules learning what true love is, or what it means to be a hero. But when watching the movie, you get the feeling he was in the right all along. He doesn’t have a moment of epiphany or a slow development like Megara. I also think that, while Rapunzel is believably naive given her circumstances, Herc’s naivete is a little too exaggerated. But I totally get where you’re coming from. As for Tangled, as you know, that’s one of my favorites! Maybe we can discuss it sometime.
M: We will once Frozen 2 premieres, and we review the most recent decade of WDAS! Returning to Hercules, it’s also worth noting that like all the films from that period (except The Rescuers Down Under), it got nominated for best original song for “Go the Distance,” but didn’t win. I think it’s a fine song, but “I Won’t Say I’mIn Love” should’ve been the one nominated. I also want to take a moment to praise Alan Menken, since this is the last Renaissance film he was involved with. All the films he produced in this decade were nominated (and most of them won) for best original song and/or score, an impressive feat that has never been matched again, I believe. I only wish he would do another score for Disney Animation, since the last one he did was Tangled almost ten years ago. But, unfortunately, Disney seems happy in keeping him re-doing all his scores for the live-action remakes.
V: I agree that “I won’t Say I’m In Love” is the stronger song for sure. “Go the Distance” has a good melody, and I like Josh Keaton as young Hercules, but I’m not big on the lyrics for reasons I mentioned earlier. I do wish Alan Menken would make a comeback. I think it’s cheap to have him continually replicating his own work from past years.
M: Or making songs that are forgettable just to extend the film’s runtime without adding to the story. Overall, I think Hercules is a flawed but enjoyable film. Most of the characters are strong, and the score is really great, as are the majority of the songs. It’s also visually different from other Disney films, which makes it appealing to watch. It has some story and tonal problems, but it remains a bright spot in the canon for me.
V: I agree with you for the most part. I love this film’s visuals and style, and some of the songs are really good. I’m about 50/50 on the characters, and I think the story and Hercules’ motivation and arc needed some work. Personally, I give this film a 6, putting it just this side of average.
M: I’ll give it a solid 7.5 or even 8. What do you think of Hercules? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to come back to check our review of Mulan!