Written by: Ron Clements, John Musker & Barry Johnson
Ahhhhh HERCULES. This one’s a funny one for me, because at the time I HATED IT, largely due to the bastardization of Greek Mythology (it’s easier to define what they got RIGHT than what they got WRONG, and basically it’s that Hercules was the son of Zeus, killed some of the same monsters, hooked up with a chick named Megara and became an immortal God), and the unnecessary and silly “Gospel Back-Up Dancers” Greek Chorus (oh hey see what they did there). I mean, I was a HUGE Greek Myth nerd growing up, and was the most so in High School/early College, which is right when this movie came out (I’da been 16 in 1997). So I was basically like “WTF they changed EVERYTHING! Hera is Hercules’ MOTHER, Hades is a BAD GUY, the Titans are just a bunch of MONSTERS, wah boo etc.!” and pooped over the whole thing. But then again…
OF COURSE THEY CHANGED EVERYTHING! It’s a freaking DISNEY MOVIE about the biggest bunch of toga-wearing whores that ever lived! THAT’S WHAT DISNEY DOES WITH EVERYTHING!! Now this might be a bad thing anyways, but I actually LIKE Disney movies and appreciate that they have to do this for just about every story, ever. So why should Greek Myth be excepted? Because I like the originals more? At least the writers clearly KNEW about all of the myths and didn’t just change them out of ignorance- they just appropriated a dozen different myths into one moviea (adding Pegasus, the Titans, etc.)… and added the “Superman” mythos to it. Just cuz.
So overall, I’m torn. Some things seemed to work, James Woods plays a great slick schyster of a villain in Hades, despite being everything I dislike about lazy “well he rules Hell so that makes him Satan, right?” depictions of Hades in fiction.
Megara is a lot better in retrospect, in that she’s a cynical broken women who has been burned on love and thus is rather hesitant to admit to anything- in stark contrast to the wide-eyed idealists that populate Disney heroines (I think this is a big part of why more GIRLS seem to like Meg- she’s to them what say, Wolverine was to males in the ’80s- the cynical one who didn’t fall for the cliches and paved their own path). The Gospel Girls… well those still suck and are annoying. They justify themselves with one song, but they’re mostly a weird “WTF?” moment because they don’t fit with the whole film.
The Nostalgia Critic points this out, and it’s true- the film’s a mess of themes and styles. Characters look like Greek pottery art a bit (thus being one of the most unique and original Disney films to deviate from the Disney House Style that’s nigh-universal… so of course everyone hated it) despite people being more familiar with realistic Greek Art, everything is glitzy like Las Vegas, and there’s… Gospel Music and Michael Bolton-written schmaltz-rock as the key theme? The FRIG? Its art style is often criticized- it’s one of my biggest problems with the movie, in fact- everyone just looks so WEIRD with their off-kilter proportions and scrawny joints. The plot is decent enough, but the “current” dialogue often comes across as forced or overly-trendy (especially in the case of Meg- “It’s been a real SLICE-ah!”).
Overall, it did okay-ish in theaters but not GREAT- it was the third-straight Disney Movie to do more poorly than its predecessor, which went a big way in defining the post-Pocahontas decline of the Disney Reinaissance. In fact, these three movies coming on the heels of each other were more or less what convinced everybody that the thing was trending downards in the first place- one flop you could pass off as a fluke. But they failed to stick the landing. The Renaissance more or less died with The Lion King and that’s that, though a few later movies (mainly Mulan and Tarzan) did very well with audiences.
The film wasn’t really beloved in it’s day, and nowadays ONLY gets credit by people who either liked Woods’ performance or the character of Megara (more women than men, actually), and it’s mostly forgotten otherwise. Disney sure tries it’s damndest to forget this one ever existed, that’s for certain- despite coming out with a TV series based off of the film, which had a metric TON of Celebrity Guest Voices, from Jennifer Aniston to William Shatner and Idina *sigh* Menzel. James Woods even played Hades again! Completely altering the continuity of the movie while he was at it.
Hercules himself is a bit of a rarity, being a naive and innocent Disney MALE. As the hero of the film, he comes across a bit bland, but he’s alright- he’s your standard Outsider Teenager (being a bit Peter Parker but with Class 100 strength) who has trouble interacting with others, falls for a no-good (or some-good) girl and ends up trying to become a hero to join Olympus and make good. He’s not the most… FASCINATING of characters (as heroic motivations go, “I want to belong with the Gods” is REALLY weak and comes off as rather selfish- he fights evil not out of duty or care, but to get to hang out with his dad), and the key problem is that he’s utterly shown up by his supporting cast on every level. Tate Donovan is COMPETENT but utterly falters before James Woods & Susan Egan here. Herc has a much weaker emotional range (though he does a good mournful cry when Meg bites it), less of a concrete motivation compared to everybody else, and isn’t even FUNNY. Like he doesn’t even crack a JOKE- compared to a cast full of snarky people, it makes him seem bland.
And man, that whole “OMG he was CLUMSY as a child!” thing is shown literally only once, and is the weakest symapthy-grab EVER- we’re supposed to feel sorry for him because his AMAZING SUPER-POWERS made him an awkward kid? Well boo-f***in’-hoo, kid- wish I could do that! I think half the X-Men have more legitimate grievances about their powers than that. That, the whole “Hero as Athlete Analogue” thing, and his whole weird reasoning for being a hero really add up to make for a very uncertain, questionable main hero, which I think is why he’s been so utterly forgotten by audiences and Disney over the years. As Lindsay Ellis points out in her video-essay, Megara’s whole Character Arc is much stronger- her stakes are higher, her motivation more clear, and her character arc more defined (she doesn’t want to fall in love again, and is bound by duty to Hades… but is in love with Hercules, and must betray Hades in order to save Herc).
About the Performer: One of those “Vague ’90s Guys That Nobody Remembers”, Tate Donovan has been in a lot of stuff, some of it nominated for awards and junk! He was a recurring character on tons of TV shows, including Friends (as Joshua, a temporary love interest of Rachel, played by his real-life girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Aniston), Damages and The O.C., and has largely featured in a serviceable, but not really fame-worthy, career.
Roger Bart, the singing voice of Herc, actually has a really long, varied career as well, largely from stage performing- he was in the original cast of The Producers, debuted the role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein‘s musical, and won a Tony for playing Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (Kristin Chenoweth was discovered in the same play, also winning a Tony as Lucy). He’s also done a lot of side roles in movies & TV.
Philoctetes is Danny DeVito essentially playing himself (he’s well-cast, in any case) as a Mickey-style burned-out trainer. Hercules has to convince Phil to train him, after all of his old students were wash-outs, though if you follow the myths (which this movie… doesn’t), 90% of those guys ended up being great heroes regardless (I mean, who would be ashamed of the guy who offed the Minotaur?). He’s basically an entirely original character, as Herc’s trainer was the more heroic Chiron in the myths, and was a centaur, not a satyr. The “real” Philoctetes was an archer who fought in the Trojan War and later was the only one willing to burn the agonized Hercules at his funeral pyre (earning the favour of the Demi-God), and Phil’s whole thing seems to be acting like the God Pan instead- a stereotypical Satyr, basically. He also exists to get as much skirt-chasing as humanly possible into a G-Rated film.
About the Performer: Danny DeVito is famous for being short and ugly, and typically plays characters who fit that type- cantankerous sorts, perverts and low-class individuals. He got his start in the sitcom Taxi (which netted him an Emmy), and was famously in Twins, Batman Returns, and other stuff during my childhood, and kept getting work later, usually in bit parts- he’s one of the busier actors out of this whole Disney list, but rarely in major roles until It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Still working while in his 70s, he’s known to be legitimately talented but pretty much relegated to smaller joke-y roles, to the point where he was nominated for a Tony as recently as 2017.
Megara is one of the shining parts of Hercules, and one of the most unique characters in a Disney film. Cynics were relatively common as far back as Snow White, because they could represent the snarkers in the audience and therefore could sass the picture to keep things from getting too schmaltzy, but one who was cynical about falling in love itself? And one who was WORKING FOR THE VILLAIN? Now THIS was a unique story!
Megara (“My friends call me Meg. At least they would if I had any friends”) had sold her soul to Hades in order to save her lover’s life… but when he chased after the newest piece of tail, he left her utterly heartbroken, and beholden to the God of the Dead. So now she’s a sarcastic, bitter, broken cynic who refuses to ever get attached again… and when she falls for “Wonder Boy” and his innate goodness, she has some decisions to make. Her freedom is the prize if she does what Hades wants, but she’ll have to betray Herc to do it. And so we get the best character moments of the film, as the “Broken Bird” cynic is forced to confront her own emotions, blasting out a wonderful “Do Not Want” song called I Won’t Say (I’m In Love)– a desperate attempt to avoid her own emotions. Susan Egan’s world-weary, sly voice acting is a real revelation here, as you can just feel she’s SO broken, doesn’t want to admit to herself that she’s falling in love, and as she gets sassier and sassier to Hades about it, she finally admits it to herself, sacrificing herself for the man she loves.
Overall, she was sly, cynical and misleading, which made her a very interesting, fun to watch character. She used WAYYY too much slang at points, which, combined with Susan Egan’s Broadway-trained enunciation, led to some cheesiness (“It’s been a real SLICE-ah!” or “This scene won’t play!”), where the play up the Gospel Muses at the same time and play them off of Meg as she rejects the possibility of love as “too cliche!” so it’s a pity she’s only ever really been a Broadway actress of some note, since those types are unfortunately less famous. The only problem with it is that it’s like TWO MINUTES LONG, when the cheeseball ’80s Michael Bolton Power Ballad “I Can Go The Distance” gets all the hype- lesson learned: Power Ballads only work when they’re FROM the Eighties, not as straight attempts from 1997 to recapture the decade.
Meg seducing Herc is GREAT, and quite unusual for a Disney film. I love how he just childishly tries to scoot away (even holding his legs together) and she’s all over him. Her “seductive face” with her teeth clenched is BEST. LOL, her face when she walks backwards into the cupid- all “UGH yer shitting me” . And then she turns around and tries to WALK AWAY from the whole thing, disregarding Hades’s orders (and giving up her freedom), because she doesn’t want to hurt him. And her reasoning is basically about how people are “petty and dishonest” and how getting close only hurts people. It’s AWESOME, and when Herc’s all “you’re not like that” she just gives him the frustrated “How do YOU know what I’m like?” because SHE IS ACTUALLY BEING DISHONEST WITH HIM. “Sometimes it’s better to be alone”. Such a good bit.
Her character design is kind of off-kilter, as her face is really well-designed, but her head is misshapen, and her torso is extended to a ludicrous degree, making her look odd when wearing anything other than her purple toga. But I still get a kick out of her smirky face and the way she does the “biting with parted lips to convey sultriness” thing on Herc when she attempts to seduce him. Her realization when he does the nerdy-boy “peck on the cheek” thing is hilarious, too.
About the Performer: Susan Egan got noticed by Disney as the original Belle on the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast– listening to the soundtrack is actually “a bit alarming”, as she would say, as Egan’s distinctive raspy, sarcastic voice as someone as sweet as BELLE just feels odd. Only twenty-four when cast as Belle, her voice sounds much older, which really provides some maturity and kick to the world-weariness of Megara (hard to believe she was only 27 at the time).
She’s primarily been in theatre since then, performing in various cities as top characters like Maria Von Trapp, Molly Brown, and a thoroughly modern woman named Millie, but has few Broadway credits to her name. Her major TV credit was as “The Best Friend” on Nikki Cox’s short-lived sitcom Nikki (when Cox was one of the hottest women in Hollywood and not a plastic surgery monster).
Most recently, she was Rose Quartz/Pink Diamond on Steven Universe. It’s a bit of a… MINOR career- certainly nothing compared to any of her co-stars in Hercules, which is kind of sad, given how good she was as Meg. It’s serviceable and all, and she keeps working, but you’d think she’d have a bigger IMDB page, at least.
The use of Hades in Disney’s Hades is a bit of a sore point with me, as the whole “Hades = Satan” thing is ridiculously short-sighted and based entirely around our assumptions (a a Christian society) about what the ruler of the underworld would be like (Hades is the God of both Hell AND Heaven, for example). But hey, if you’re gonna f*ck the myths, you f*ck them WELL- James Woods decided to make the initially-menacing portrayal one of a snide, conniving con-man. More like a Hollywood agent or Used-Car Salesman… which sort of makes the fact that’s he’s the God of The Dead a step towards honesty! Woods has gone on to be the most-iconic part of the film (like a lot of Disney Villains), and actually enjoyed playing the role so much that he offered to return for ANY use of the character- he’s even in Kingdom Hearts and Hercules: The Animated Series, which almost NEVER use Hollywood actors! He basically works for peanuts because he just likes playing this slimy villain to that extent, which is nice to hear.
But yeah, it’s an amazing performance. He’s just so incredibly slimy and dishonest and scheming that it’s both disgusting and hilarious. When he mimics the contours of a woman’s frame and goes “maybe we’re just not through the RIGHT- *heh heh* curves at him” to Megara, he comes off as deliciously skeevy. The “flaming head” thing gives out a lot of emotion, and even the weirder bits of his dynamic, like the pointy teeth and elongated fingers, add to the whole instead of making him too weird to take seriously.
About the Performer: James Woods is a super-famous actor, and one in a long line to get parts in Disney Renaissance features. He’s been in big stuff since the ’70s and ’80s (as far back as Once Upon A Time In America), and generally plays miserable bastards and slimeballs, owing to his syrupy, high-pitched voice. He’s been nominated for Oscars and gotten parts big and small, and seems to enjoy the “fun” jobs- playing Hades was such a delight for him that he insisted on being brought back to do it any time Disney needed him. Not many Oscar nominees do voices for friggin’ PlayStation games, you know. He’s since become somewhat infamous for REALLY outspoken political views which border on conspiracy theory (“George Soros worked with the Nazis!”).
Rip Torn was a boisterous, happy-go-lucky King of the Gods, oddly un-sad about having missed his son for so long (compare his reaction to that of Rapunzel’s parents in Tangled)- he’s all “OH HEY SON NICE TO SEE YOU AGAIN!” and stuff. He’s a bit vague on how Herc can become a “true hero” and rejoin his parents, but MAN can he beat the hell out of people- he one shots a Titan the size of a mountain, blowing his heads clean off! He’s powerful enough to take out any one Titan, but a pair of them team up to entrap him in a Lava/Ice flow.
About the Performer: Rip Torn is ancient, and has been in a TON of stuff, though I mainly remember him from The Larry Sanders Show and Freddie Got Fingered (shut up). With his gravelly, angry-sounding voice, he’s ideal as a “character actor” or Mean Boss, like in the Men In Black films. He’s known to be a bit of a nut, getting into fights on the set, and apparently once broke into a place while drunk, earning him a criminal conviction.
Reception & Cultural Impact:
The movie underperformed more than any other Renaissance Era picture (save the Rescuers bomb), falling short of its predecessor and its successors by several million dollars- over $100 million worldwide, when all was said and done. The movie just seemed to try to appeal to EVERYONE, and so appealed to no one. The questionable advertising (which focused on the “Sports Star” analogues), the odd art style, and the Generic Action Hero vibe were turn-offs. The hero is so forgettable that Disney has largely seemed to ignored his very existence- good luck finding any Herc-themed gear at the Disney Stores.
Ultimately, the major effect the film had was on the great Disney Villain. Hades is by far the most memorable aspect of the feature, and appears in Disney Parks stuff to this day, often in big Villain Shows, as he’s one of the major powerhouses (Tokyo DisneySea features him in the Villains World Halloween Dance thing).
Despite the poor reception, the movie led to a Hercules TV series, featuring Herc as a scrawny teen learning at Phil’s school for heroes, alongside Cassandra (a unibrowed Snarky Girl, voice by Sandra Bernhard) and Icarus (a wild-eyed Stupid, Annoying Friend, voiced by French Stewart). The directors even joked during the production of Hercules that all they were doing was just “a pilot for a series”.
James Woods loved playing Hades so much he insisted on playing the role again (on the cheap, even), and showed up frequently on the show (which broke continuity with the movie, not that anyone cared). The show actually had a TON of celebrity involvement- Wikipedia says over 150 people, from Merv Griffin to my future bride Idina Menzel were on it. Jennifer Aniston probably being the biggest star.