The “Glad” in “Gladiator” | Disney’s Hercules

There are a lot of people who get annoyed when adaptations of famous (and obscure) myths get adapted; certain audiences get pretty nitpicky with how their favorite stories are being told, or who’s telling the myth, or who’s filling which roles in it. And sometimes it does matter because of the particular themes a retelling is attempting to relate—for instance, one might look at the 2004 adaptation of the Iliad, “Troy,” and be pretty irritated about characterization, redrawn familial relationships, and the bad writing of the script itself. (As someone who wrote about that movie for her master’s thesis, I can confirm: a lot of bad writing! Brought in part to audiences by half of the team responsible for HBO’s television adaptation of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” “Game of Thrones.”) If there was ever a movie which brought significant revision to a famous Greek myth, it was Disney’s 1997 animated feature, “Hercules.”

As the prologue to the movie says, there have been a lot of heroes in antiquity—but have you ever heard about Hercules? The muses, modeled on Gospel singers, are here to give you the Gospel Truth: Hercules is the greatest hero, in this version, who ever lived. His uncle Hades has some world domination plans that require Hercules being out of the way in order to happen, and so Hercules is kidnapped and has his powers mostly drained—he’s mortal, but he has super strength, and he grows up feeling like a total freak in his weirdly strong body which nobody has the ability to teach him how to control. It’s only when his adoptive parents have realized that Hercules needs to know about where he’s from that he learns he’s actually the son of Zeus and that, in order to rejoin Olympus, he has to prove himself a true hero. Hercules goes through a training montage with Philoctetes, voiced by Danny DeVito, and comes out the other side totally jacked, more or less in control over his body, and also totally clueless as to what it means to be a hero. Hades uses Megara, a woman who sold her own soul to free a boyfriend who left her for someone else, to seduce Hercules with the goal of rendering him totally mortal, but Hades forgets that two similarly attractive cartoon characters are always going to end up falling in love with each other, and he also forgets that the Fates get what they want. Meanwhile, Hercules is getting to be a bigger and bigger star, but still doesn’t know what it means to be a hero. Meg makes a heroic sacrifice after Hercules feels betrayed, having found out about the deal between Meg and Hades, and then Hercules descends into the Underworld to save her soul. (As a sidebar, I apparently like movies which involve going to hell and back.) He also almost dies, but because this is The Big Heroic Moment, he gains his immortality and godhood just in time! He saves Meg, leaves the Underworld, saves everyone else, and is invited back to Olympus (finally!) just for him to realize that, actually, immortality isn’t worth it if he can’t have Meg by his side. There are a lot of different myths which are being told in this movie, including: Hercules, obviously—his twelve labors are represented, and Megara is his wife, however, she’s his first wife who he kills in the myths, so; a little Dionysus, in terms of one of Zeus’s kids who actually does get to ascend and become a full god; some Bellerophon with the inclusion of Pegasus; and a little merging of Hercules’s trips to the Underworld in mythology to save someone else’s wife with Orpheus and Eurydice, but with a happier ending. Basically, this movie is all over the place—while at the same time making references to Greek tragedy, jokes about Latin and Roman numerals, references to plagues, and a super focus on visual art throughout (both within the context of Greco-Roman pieces and reproductions as well as to other Disney features). While Disney’s “Hercules” doesn’t tell “the exact myth” by any means (and nor should it, to be honest, for its apparent narrative aims), it would be hard to argue that this movie is careless in its adaptation of the stories. If anything, the references throughout as well as the care put into the movie’s construction imply very deliberate choices with regard to the changes made in both plot and character, and that those choices were made with full awareness of the stories being borrowed from. To put it short, even though this isn’t the definitive version of the Hercules myth, it’s a well-researched and well-informed version which is appropriate for a younger viewer audience, is fitting with the prominent themes present in most of the other Disney Renaissance films (creating brand cohesion in storytelling across the decade), and which is just a really enjoyable movie to watch.

“Hercules” stands out among the movies produced during the Disney Renaissance because of its distinctive art style; while it could be argued that each of the individual films during the decade had their own styles, other 1997 release “Beauty and the Beast” and the earlier 1989 “Little Mermaid” (as well as the animals featured in “Rescuers Down Under”) are much more similar to the earlier Disney animation style which had its soft-start with the first Disney Princess movie, “Snow White” in 1937 but was more firmly articulated through the Disney animated films of the 1950s and 60s. “Hercules” shares some stylistic similarities with “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) in terms of the corners of some of the lines, as well as its approach to the character outlines and rendering of hair and clothing, but is in general a more unique looking film which itself also is an adaptation of the art featured at the very start of the film. (It bears mentioning that Disney animated films did, towards the end of the Disney Renaissance, all develop along more varied animation styles.)

The stylization of this film is a huge part of its emphasis on and relationship to the Classical art tradition; the shapes of the characters are drawn in large part from the red figure and black figure vases anyone visiting an art museum might see when walking through an Art of Ancient Greece and Rome exhibit, a point that is made as the movie starts by guiding the viewer through such a museum scene. The Muses in the prologue, acting as the chorus, tell the history of Zeus and Hades’ feud across such pottery. Their appearance shifts only so far as to match other art within a scene; they become, when Meg sings “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love),” a part of the scene by blending into the sculptural works in the garden. The visual motifs running through characters’ hair and clothing and the architecture of the backgrounds—the swirling waves and curly clouds carry this visual theming. That the majority of the works of art which appear in this movie are real pieces—pieces which also reinterpreted or adapted various stories of myth—places “Hercules” within that same cultural context, working this movie as both a bildungsroman (of which we have so many, and which all tell, more or less, the same stories for different ages) and as belonging to a tradition of retelling stories which have been immortalized through the visual arts. On the one hand, it is disappointing that the statues which are in the garden are depicted in marble white when there’s been awareness since at least the 1980s that the ancient Greeks and Romans painted everything, but considering the cultural perception and identification of these pieces as being bare objects, it’s not particularly egregious. The art itself, combined with different jokes in Thebes and the reinterpretation of modernity through a Classicized lens, lends the movie a sense of anachronism.

We tend to think of myths as existing outside of time; they might take place a long time ago, but the perception of that time is lost on us. I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but even in an era where we have carefully documented changes in style and technology across individual years and decades, it can be hard for that time not to collapse in on itself. In one hundred years, there’s nobody to clarify exactly when something happened; while we may be better served in terms of sorting recent history, what happens to us with decades (the 60s and 70s blur together, the 70s and 80s blur, the 90s and 2000s blur) happens on a larger scale with centuries and millennia past. For a movie like “Hercules,” where the point is to capture the general feel of antiquity (since that’s where we date the myth back to), the use of visual art here serves an overall aesthetic need rather than making an attempt at historical accuracy. There is a world history in Classical mythology which details the different ages of man, and these histories do provide a chronology of heroes, but when the purpose of a movie is to make an argument about goodness and love as a driving motivator to save people. It’s probably okay that Hercules and Meg go and see “Oedipus Rex” when she gets him to play hooky. The point of the movie isn’t accuracy to any one history.

“Hercules” is served very well by its soundtrack; while many might argue that other Disney movies have better songs, I personally disagree (I’m also extremely biased). The music of “Hercules” has in its cards a sad girl anthem—“I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)”—a song for any tween/teenager trying to find their place in the world with “Go the Distance,” and, of course, “Zero to Hero,” a gospel-style bop with exciting fanfare. Alan Menken’s work as a composer for Disney during the Disney Renaissance can’t be overstated; one of the brilliances of that era of animation for Disney is the willingness to do different things for different films; the musical styles which work for “Hercules” would not work for a movie like “Beauty and the Beast,” and I think that this variation in style is something that has been missing from more recent Disney musicals—and to an extent musicals in general. It’s not that the movies of the Disney Renaissance aren’t Broadway-based (“The Lion King” being one of the longest running musicals on Broadway, and Menken himself coming from a stage background), but with the widespread adoption of two things—the Idina Menzel mezzo-soprano voice in singing, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s composition style—it’s hard to claim that, for the diversity in stories being told and the characters who are being represented that the medium itself is able to keep up. In exchange for attempting to tell different stories, it’s almost like the medium has to be much more conservative—that is, has to play it much safer—when it comes to how they’re telling the stories. While nobody is going to confuse “Hercules” for “Mulan,” it’s a little less easy to make that claim about Pixar movies (and, for that matter, Dreamworks films, since it’s an industry-wide issue, not one exclusive to Disney) where there is a distinctive visual style which runs through each of the movies and is fairly consistent throughout. We’re approaching a place in general where media—perhaps as a consequence of Disney’s monopoly approach to IP and studio acquisition—feels extremely same-same: there is a routine and outline to how the movies should proceed, and there’s very little room for films being produced by large companies like Disney to take creative risks and do something new.

At the end of the day, though, when I’m watching “Hercules,” I might not be thinking about any of these things, and especially not the direction in which media has been descending over the past decade. (In fact, sometimes I find it’s better not to think about it at all, which brings its own issues, obviously.) I throw “Hercules” on, and I think about how much like mythology, and I think about what a great song “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” is (it’s my go to karaoke song), and I think about how when I was a kid, my VCR ate two copies of this movie because I watched it so often. I think about how it might have been my first foray into mythology, and how it was probably the stepping stone to me wanting to read the myths myself so I could get more embedded into a world where it seems like it’s always warm, where there are all these statues and beautiful buildings, and where there are gods and goddesses and real heroes. Watching it gives me the comfort of how it felt sitting and watching it in my living room as a kid before I had any awareness of world mythology or theories of myths or even anything to do with art and art history—and that empty innocence where everything was still brand new is a place, sometimes, I wish I could still be.

Jillian Boger

Jill is a writer and academic whose scholarship primarily focuses on popular culture, trauma studies, conflict, and girlhood. Her dream job is to be the kind of hermit rich, landowning folk in the late-Regency period would hire to sit on their highly cultivated “wild lawns.”