Ranking Disney: #27 – Hercules (1997)
Hercules is another one of those Disney films I hadn’t seen when I was a child. So I came in with no frame of reference for it, and my reaction to it is pure.
It was almost exactly what I was expecting — tail end of Disney Renaissance, maintaining a good deal of the magic of the earlier films and including more and more of the little things that annoy me from the more recent films.
But even if there are parts that annoy me — the music is good, the visuals are outstanding, and the story works. And there’s some great characterization with the characters of Meg and Hades (and the voice work there is outstanding). That, to me, adds up to a great film, no matter what I think is wrong with it.
The film begins with a prologue, narrated by Charlton Heston (because I know my motherfuckin’ voices), which says:
“Long ago, in the far away land of ancient Greece, there was a golden age of powerful gods and extraordinary heroes. And the greatest and strongest of all these heroes was the mighty Hercules. But what is the measure of a true hero? Ah, that is what our story is…”
And then he’s interrupted by a bunch of sassy black bitches. Also known as the muses. But we’ll get to them in a second. I have a question first —
“Long ago, in the far away land of ancient Greece…”
Aren’t both “long ago” and “Ancient Greece” redundant? Was it called Ancient Greece back then? Otherwise, shouldn’t the “long ago” part imply the “ancient” part? How do you fuck up the first line of the movie like that?
Also, how they got Charlton Heston to say, “You go girl,” is beyond me. Maybe the dementia had already slipped in by that point. Anyway…
The muses then sing about how fucked up the world used to be, with the Titans roaming around, fucking shit up on the regular. And then Zeus came and shoved lightning bolts up their asses and locked them away. They’re doing 25 to life in Leavenworth.
Then Zeus went up on Mount Olympus to fuck bitches and get money. Which is where our story begins…
Zeus is having a cocktail party, where he introduces everyone to his and Hera’s son, Hercules. He’s a strong little fucker. Picks his teeth with lightning. And Zeus gives Hercules Pegasus as a gift.
Then Hades shows up. He’s clearly unhappy with stuff and wants Zeus dead. Oh, and we find out all about him from the muses. We also meet his sidekicks, Pain and Panic.
He has a meeting with the Fates, who are like the Macbeth witches mixed with Medusa’s sisters. They have one eye between them, and represent past, present and future. He coerces the future one into admitting that his prepared hostile takeover of Mt. Olympus by unleashing the Titans will be foiled by Hercules.
So sends Pain and Panic up to Olympus to kidnap baby Hercules. And they make him drink poison or something and it makes him almost mortal. They were supposed to make him drink every last drop, but one naturally didn’t get drank, so now he’s only a demigod. Mortal, but has strength and shit.
Then a childless couple shows up and decides to adopt Hercules. Oh, and Pain and Panic turn into serpents, just like the myth, to try to kill Hercules. But he fucks ‘em up real good.
We then cut to about eighteen years later, as Hercules is now grown up. Everyone’s scared shitless of him because he’s so goddamn strong he can’t help it. And he sings “Go the Distance,” because he’s upset. But then his parents tell him he was found and show him the medal of the gods that was around his neck.
He then goes to the temple of Zeus to find some answers. He talks to the Zeus statue, which is all Lincoln Memorial-like, and it comes to life. Zeus tells Hercules he’s his father and that if he proves himself a true hero on Earth, then he’ll become a god again and can live on Mt. Olympus. He also gives him Pegasus back.
Following Zeus’ advice, he seeks out Philoctetes, the trainer of heroes, who trained all the mythical heroes – Jason, Persus, Theseus, Odysseus, etc. Hercules first encounters him, jerking off in the bushes while watching wood nymphs. He also prefers to be called Phil, which is fitting for someone who jerks off in bushes.
He says he’s retired, since all the people he’s trained let him down (since all of them ended up being unable to “go the distance”). Hercules appeals to his dream of training a hero so great the gods put him in the stars as a constellation, and he agrees.
Montage time. Hercules gets roided up. He’s gonna fly (on Pegasus) now. (Also, look at that Karate Kid reference up there.)
They head out to Thebes to build Hercules’ reputation, when they run into Meg. Well, Megara, but everyone here has Americanized names. She’s playing some weird sex games with a Centaur, and Hercules thinks she’s a damsel in distress.
He then beats the shit out of the centaur, and Meg doesn’t really seem to give a shit. She’s pretty sarcastic, and immediately becomes one of my favorite Disney heroines.
We also find out she’s working for Hades. Turns out, she was playing some sex games with the centaur, using her feminine wiles to convince him to join Hades.
Hades also finds out Hercules is still alive. He’s not happy.
Hercules and Phil end up in Thebes, which is apparently like New York in the 70s.
He tries to be its hero, but they’re exactly like New Yorkers, and are pretty cynical. Meg then shows up (working for Hades), to lure Hercules into a trap.
Pain and Panic pretend to be two children trapped in the gorge. Hercules saves them, with many people of Thebes (Thebians? Please let it be Thebians) watching. Though Hades sends the Hydra to kill Hercules. But Hercules fucks that up pretty easily, even though it keeps growing heads.
The muses then montage us again, a Hercules becomes the biggest fucking thing before Jesus (but after sliced bread). Hades is even more pissed, since his plan is going into action tomorrow, and Hercules can still kill him.
He then sends Meg to find out Hercules’s weakness by exploiting hers – she sold her soul to Hades if he brought back a dead lover of hers, but soon after the dude came back, he ran off with another woman. Hades promises her freedom in return for bringing down
the house Hercules.
Hercules then tells stone Zeus his exploits, thinking he’s gonna get to go to Mt. Olympus soon, but Zeus says he’s not a true hero yet. Being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero. (Nice critique of the celebrity culture.) Meg then shows up at his villa (past Phil) and sneaks him out for the day.
(I love this image. It looks like, “Hey, wanna get out of here and go fuck?”)
They spend a day together, and it’s clear they’re falling for one another. She then flirts like a model on a Saudi prince’s boat trying to figure out his weakness. But she discovers he doesn’t really seem to have one. They go to
fuck kiss, but Phil comes and breaks it up like Public Safety at a frat party.
Meg then sings “(I Won’t Say) I’m in Love,” which is the best song in the film, by far.
Afterwards, she tells Hades to go fuck himself, and he reminds her she works for him. Phil overhears this. He runs away to tell Herc, while Meg says Hades can’t hurt Hercules, whereupon Hades realizes Herc’s true weakness – her.
Pain and Panic kidnap Pegasus while Phil tries to tell Hercules. It doesn’t go well, so Phil leaves – you know how these things work — “I don’t need you.” “I thought you were gonna be the best…” — standard Disney movie end of act two stuff.
Hades then shows up and tries to bargain with Herc. He says he’s kidnapped Meg and tells Hecules that in return for her safety, he has to give up his powers for 24 hours. (Rhymes are fun.) Herc agrees, and Hades reveals afterward that Meg was working for him. Naturally, Herc is heartbroken and doesn’t want anything to do with her.
So the cosmos align and all that, and Hades frees the Titans, who are basically Greecian Monstars. They are – a Fire type, an Ice type, a Rock type, and a Flying type. Hades is a Ghost type (since there really is no “God” type… yet), and there’s a Cyclops to finish the team, which is a Normal type. They start climbing Olympus and the gods stage a counterattack.
Hades also unleashes the Cyclops on Thebes, basically to crush their spirit, knowing Hercules can’t stop it. But Herc goes out to face it, knowing he’ll probably be killed.
It’s very gunslinger, isn’t it? “Man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
Meg then frees Pegasus and goes to get Phil. Naturally, he doesn’t want to, but his better instincts give in and he goes to help his friend. He pulls a Mickey and pep talks Herc into regaining his confidence, and Herc blinds the Cyclops and takes it down.
Though after he does, Meg is crushed by a falling pillar, pushing him out of the way. And, as per Hades’ agreement, since Meg was harmed, Hercules gets his powers back. He realizes she loves him and goes off to help Zeus, who has been captured by the Titans along with the rest of the gods.
He frees all the gods, and they fuck up the Titans like Peyton Manning used to do. Hercules throws them into space and they explode, inexplicably.
Only Hades has a trump card – Meg is dying. She dies and her soul goes down to the underworld. Hercules then storms down there and demands she be freed. He agrees to exchange his soul for hers. Hades says that if he can get her out of the pool of souls, it’s fine by him.
Hercules dives into the pool of souls to get her, only Hades doesn’t tell him that he’ll be dead before he can get her out. So Hades thinks he’s won. Only what they don’t know is that Hercules can’t be killed – he’s a god again.
Hercules returns Meg’s soul to her body, and they’re whisked away to Olympus. Only – Meg can’t go inside.
So Hercules forfeits his place up there to be with her. And he gets put up in the stars and all that and it ends happily.
All right — first, my big problem with the film. What’s with all the modern references? You can modernize the dialogue (kind of like how they dealt with Robin Williams in Aladdin), but don’t deliberately call attention to stuff. A Wayne’s World reference (“We’re not worthy!”)? A Stones reference (“Mr. ‘Hey, you, get off of my cloud'”)? “He made me an offer I had to refuse”? “I’m walkin’ here!”? “Let’s get ready to rumble”?
How about these images?
It puts way too much attention on the fact that we’re not in this time. I thought the point of a movie was to make you believe you were in the universe they were showing you? It takes me out of it when you’re making references to Air Jordans and credit cards when very obviously they wouldn’t have had that stuff back then. Meg makes a comment about hormones — hormones weren’t discovered until like 80 years ago. You can make stuff modernized without things like that. I know it’s part of “new” Disney, but there’s ways of doing it that don’t call attention to themselves. Look at Tarzan — there’s not really any cultural references in that.
Or like, when Zeus gives Hercules Pegasus back. He says, “You two go way back, son.” It just doesn’t feel like ancient Greece. And it’s one of those issues — you wouldn’t immediately be able to think of a better method of doing it, yet, if it was done properly, the result would be the same and you wouldn’t notice it. So I think it’s a legitimate beef.
Oh, and the other thing I really didn’t like — and the reason I didn’t like it was because I thought I was going to like it and then they went and fucked it up anyway — Meg’s backstory. When they didn’t immediately spill her backstory in the first encounter with Hades, I practically got giddy. I was totally expecting them to just throw the backstory out like exposition and leave no surprise or mystique to her character. But then they didn’t do it. And I got really happy. Because I liked that they were going to withhold the motivation card until later when it could really strengthen her character and make her so much more complex. And then, when they went to reveal the backstory — they fucked it up anyway! They doled it out like useless exposition. It felt like exposition. Listen to the way Hades brings it up. It’s just shoehorned in there like bad exposition. When people say it like that, it doesn’t feel realistic. It feels like it’s only for the audience. Like when one character says to his brother, “You know, Karen, my wife…” as if he doesn’t fucking know who Karen is. And I thought this movie was going to not fall into the trap, and they got my hopes up for nothing.
But those things aside — I loved the movie. I thought it was a lot of fun, and I thought the music style was unique and well-done. I really loved the movie, and it’s one of the most visually resplendent things Disney has done. It’s terrific. I let slide some of the stuff about it that I don’t like, but on the whole, this is terrific. And that’s what counts.
Oh, and James Woods in this — two thumbs up.
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Official Disney Number: #35
Run Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: June 27, 1997
Budget: $85 million
Box Office: $99.1 million domestically, $252.7 million worldwide
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- “The Gospel Truth I, II, III,” performed by Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman and Vanéese Y. Thomas
- “Go the Distance,” performed by Roger Bart
- “One Last Hope,” performed by Danny DeVito
- Zero to Hero,” performed by Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman and Vanéese Y. Thomas
- “(I Won’t Say) I’m in Love,” performed by Susan Egan, and Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman and Vanéese Y. Thomas
- “A Star is Born,” performed by Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman and Vanéese Y. Thomas
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- This film was nominated for Best Original Song for “Go the Distance.” It lost (rightfully so) to “My Heart Will Go On.” (Also nominated in that category was “How Do I Live” from Con Air. And surprisingly, not “(I Won’t Say) I’m in Love.”)
- Hades was originally scripted as a slow, menacing character until they heard James Woods’ style.
- My favorite piece of trivia about this film was that James Woods demanded (and maybe contractually obligates) that no matter how small the project, only he can voice Hades. He loved playing the character so much that he told them he wants to voice it for everything they do that involves the character. That’s awesome.
- This is the first (full) Disney movie to be inspired by mythology and not a fairy tale.
- There’s a Wilhelm Scream as the Cyclops is destroying shit.
- Apparently they spent between six and fourteen hours to render a frame of the hydra, depending on how many heads it had. (Jesus.)
- Ricky Martin voices Hercules in the Spanish version, which is so hilarious to me.
- Piece of trivia and strange lack of continuity — Hercules bumps his head on the mast of the Argo and Phil tells him what it is. That’s how Jason died in the myth — the mast fell on him. But — Hercules was on the Argo (ever see Jason and the Argonauts?). So it’s weird that he wouldn’t recognize it. I mean, I get it, it’s just — you’d think they’d not make that reference and open that can of worms. (There’s also a bunch of other shit — just look for the giant paragraph on the IMDB trivia page — but I don’t care about it.)
- This is the first Disney movie since Oliver and Company in which the villain does not sing. Technically The Rescuers Down Under doesn’t count, but IMDB says McLeach sings “Home on the Range” at one point and counts that. I call shenanigans.
- Apparently John Lithgow was originally Hades and was replaced with James Woods. Huh… good call. Tough luck for Lithgow, though.
- Here’s a great piece of trivia from Wikipedia: “The character design was based on Greek statues and artist Gerald Scarfe’s work in Pink Floyd—The Wall.”
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1. Negative coloring! Lots of it.
2. Look familiar?
3. Look how creepy Phil is — he’s jerking off in the fucking bushes:
4. There’s a flasher in the movie. Let’s just pause on that. I know he’s really hocking shit Shifty-Ass A-rab/Coming to America style, but the implication is that he might be a flasher. We’ve come a long way from 1937. (60 years, in fact.)
5. I can’t tell how racist this is meant to be. The image is a reference to The Jungle Book with King Louie, holding up the pillar. All the trivia on this says she makes ape noises. So I can’t tell where the line between “reference” and “racist” ends/begins.
6. Tell me the Titans are not the Monstars. Come on.
7. It’s like Tinkerbell getting caught in the drawer.
8. Doesn’t the hydra look like Scroop from Treasure Planet?
9. I love this Venus de Milo joke. I don’t know why, but I laughed like an idiot when it happened.
10. The coloring reminds me of “Pink Elephants on Parade.” Mostly I just like how they animated these shots.
11. These images (they’re both from the same pull back) remind me of a Busby Berkeley number. And whenever Disney does a Busby Berkeley number/image, I’m gonna put it here.
12. This reminds me of the “Happy Valley” in “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”
13. This looks just like the other time Disney went with mythology for one of their films — the centaur segment in Fantasia.
14. I’m pretty sure they did this in Fantastia, too. But I love this image, of (which God is it? I can’t even think of the name) driving the chariot across the sky, making it night. Gorgeous image.
15. Character walking across a downed tree. Extra bonus that he downed it himself.
16. This really reminds me of a shot from the end of The Searchers, as John Wayne is chasing down Natalie Wood. We see it from almost the exact same vantage point.
17. Sleeping Beauty, much?
18. A Seven-Year Itch reference. Obvious, but I felt I should show it.
19. Reflections in the water:
20. Classic Disney framing — character/characters framed between branches:
21. I love this shot. The coloring of the bushes. It’s gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. This might be my favorite shot in the film.
22. Looks almost exactly like Fantasia. Which is inescapable, since it’s Hephaestus making lightning bolts for Zeus. It’s just that Fantasia being what it is — comparisons are going to be drawn.
23. This is another one of my favorite images in the film. I love it so, so much.
24. “Dat ass…”
25. How can you not end with this image if you’re me?