Released in 1997, Hercules was another successful notch in Disney’s belt during their Renaissance era. Although not as iconic as Aladdin – with which it shares its directors and a similar tone – Hercules is every bit as fun as its predecessor. Though it lacks the sophistication that made The Hunchback of Notre Dame a standout Disney feature, Hercules remains an entertaining and humorous entry in the Disney canon.
With Hercules, Disney took the most basic elements and figures of Greek mythology, and used them as a backdrop for one of their most energetic comedies. Hades (James Woods), god of the Underworld, plans to overthrow Zeus and take over Mount Olympus by freeing the long-dormant Titans, whom Zeus trapped long ago. But there’s a wrinkle in Hades’ plan, as the Fates foresee his downfall should Zeus’ newborn son Hercules (Tate Donovan) grow up to become a great warrior.
Hades, hoping to ensure his future victory, sends his minions to kidnap the newborn Hercules, turn him mortal with a dark potion, and get rid of him before he can become a threat. Hades’ lackeys succeed in kidnapping the baby and turning him mortal, but are interrupted by some farmers. The interruption prevents Hercules from drinking a last, vital drop, and he retains his Godlike strength.
The farmers raise Hercules as their own child, and although Hercules has a good life with them, his substantial strength makes it difficult to adjust to life among mortals, who don’t take kindly to his differences. After Hercules accidentally destroys a small town, Hercules’ parents tell him how they found him, and he then seeks guidance from Zeus to find out where he truly belongs. Herc then learns that he must become a ‘true hero’ in order to return to Mount Olympus.
It’s a fun plot that combines Greek mythology with the Superman origin story, all wrapped up with Disney style and flair. But it’s the characters who are the real highlight.
Hercules is a likable main character. He’s simple and good natured, with some added naivety and clumsiness to make him more humorous than most of Disney’s leading men. His mentor in heroism, Philoctetes (Danny DeVito) – otherwise known as Phil – is a grumpy satyr who serves as the Mickey to Herc’s Rocky. Hercules finds a love interest in the vivacious Megara (Susan Egan), who is more troubled than your average Disney heroine.
But, like so many Disney movies before it, it’s the villain who steals the show. Hades ranks alongside Aladdin’s Genie as one of the great comedic Disney characters. Hades has the slick personality of a Hollywood agent with the fast talking of a used car salesman. James Woods – much like Robin Williams’ Genie – ad-libbed a good deal of his lines, which adds to Hades’ humor and villainous charisma.
There’s also a small assortment of sidekicks, with Hercules’ flying horse Pegasus and Hades’ minions Pain and Panic. Younger viewers might get a kick out of them, but they aren’t as memorable as the main characters in the film.
Hercules also boasts a fun soundtrack. “Gospel Truth” is sung in multiple verses by the narrating Muses, and serves to segue into different chapters of the story, with clever rhyme schemes strung throughout. A similar setup is used for the song “Zero to Hero.” Hercules gets his signature number with “Go the Distance,” which is uplifting and catchy, if maybe not one of the better character songs in Disney’s repertoire. “One Last Hope” works as a training montage for Phil and Herc, and provides some laughs. The best of the lot is “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” which is a unique spin on the Disney love song, in which Megara denies her romantic feelings.
It’s a solid assortment of songs, though they ultimately fall short of Disney’s better soundtracks. Some of the songs end up being a little repetitious (Zero to Hero may as well be another verse in Gospel Truth), and the lack of a villain song is a bit of a downer, given Hade’s exuberant personality.
The animation once again displays Disney at the top of their game. The character designs are fun, working as a sort of caricature of Greek artwork. Fun little details like the swirls at the ends of Megara’s hair or Hades’ flaming mane add to the film’s overall personality. It’s also among the most colorful films Disney has made, with characters and locations so full of colors that ever moment of the film is a joy to look at.
In the end, Hercules is a very enjoyable movie, though it plays things safe. By this point in the Disney Renaissance, the structure of Disney films was teetering on formulaic. Whereas The Hunchback of Notre Dame took that structure in a new direction, Herculese – charming as it is – brought it all back. It’s soundtrack also sits somewhere lower on the Disney Renaissance shelf.
But Hercules is an entertaining and funny enough movie that you can largely forgive any shortcomings. It’s sense of humor and appealing characters help elevate it over some of the more popular Disney films of its era. It may not be the best film of the Disney Renaissance, but it does have what it takes to go the distance.