The choice by Disney to make a film based around Greek mythology is a rather interesting one. The mythology is not exactly lent to being made into family friendly films, but somehow they got Hercules to work.
The narrator (Charlton Heston) starts to tell us the story of Hercules, but is interrupted by the Muses, who end up being the real narrators of the film. They introduce us to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, where Zeus (Rip Torn, who has probably the silliest but most awesome name ever) and Hera are celebrating the birth of their son Hercules. They present the newborn with a baby pegasus, with the clever name of Pegasus, as a gift, but the party is interrupted by Zeus’ brother Hades (James Wood).
Hades is rather steamed about having to be the god of the Underworld and desperately wants to move up in the world. He asks the Fates, who can see the future and are responsible for severing the soul from the body, about whether his hostile takeover of Mount Olympus by releasing the Titans will work. The Fates tell him that if Hercules fights the plan will fail, so he has his minions, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic, kidnap and murder the infant Hercules. They are able to almost turn Hercules mortal, but are forced to stop right before the transformation is 100% done. This forced stop allows Hercules to keep his godlike strength. Pain and Panic are unable to kill the baby, but decide that they won’t tell Hades unless needed.
The film jumps a few years and Hercules is now a 16 year old boy who just can’t control his strength, which has not made him the most popular person with the surrounding towns. He accidentally destroys the village market and is branded as a menace. Hercules decides to leave his home and adoptive parents, Amphitrion and Alcmene, when they tell him that they found him with the symbol of Zeus around his neck. He travels to the temple of Zeus where he finds out that Zeus is his father and that he needs to prove himself a true hero if he wants to rejoin his parents on Mount Olympus. Zeus tells him to find Philoctetes (Danny DeVito) to get the proper hero training and gives Hercules Pegasus once again to help him. He starts his training and finishes a few years afterwards. Hercules, Pegasus, and Phil travel to Thebes to start proving himself as a hero.
On the way, Hercules saves a girl named Megara from the centaur Nessus (Jim Cummings) and is instantly smitten by Meg’s beauty, but she shoots him down. The audience is then made privvy to the fact that Meg is enslaved to Hades due to a deal that brought her ex-boyfriend back to life, only to be turned down by the revived man when he saw a new girl. The trio reach Thebes, but because Herc hasn’t had any actual experience, the people just laugh when he says he’s a hero. He is able to prove himself when Meg returns to tell him that some kids are trapped under a rock in a gorge near the city. He frees the children, who turn out to be Pain and Panic in disguise and that this is all part of Hades’ plan, and ends up freeing the hydra in the process. Hercules decides that chopping off the hydra’s head is a good idea, not realizing that when the head is chopped off, three grow back in it’s place. He keeps on doing this until it looks like he is done for, but eventually kills the hydra.
Hercules starts killing every monster he comes across and saving everyone he can and ends up becoming the most famous hero in Greece. He even starts having a relationship with Megara, which is started by Hades in an attempt to find Herc’s weakness, but she eventually falls in love with him and Hades ends up using this to his advantage and does what he does best, strikes a deal. He takes Hercules’ strength for one day in exchange for Meg being safe during that time. This allows Hades to use the strength of the Titans to overtake Olympus, and it’s up to Hercules to find a way to save the world from the Titans and free Olympus from the reign of Hades.
If you are going into this version of Hercules expecting it to be accurate to the original myths, you will be sorely disappointed. Besides character names, the movie bares little resemblance to the source material, it actually only makes references to the source. This actually makes a lot of sense considering the fact that Greek Mythology is full of rape, murder, bestiality, and rape (You said rape twice. Well, I like rape). Zeus murdered and/or enslaved the titans, two of which were his parents, ended up having around 120 children (give or take) and a large portion of them were products of rape and Zeus turning into an animal and impregnating human women (sometimes through rape). Hercules (who should more accurately be named Heracles, considering that this is Greek Mythology) wasn’t even the son of Zeus and Hera. He was the son of Zeus and a human woman named Alcmene (he essentially raped her by disguising himself as her husband Amphitrion and convincing her that he was home early from the wars), and Hera solely existed in the Heracles stories to make his life a living hell. She tormented him at every turn and even drove him mad and killed his wife Megara and their children. Heracles took on the 12 labours in order to redeem himself.
Hades isn’t even always a villain in Greek Mythology, also Zeus is not always a good guy. In fact, Zeus is one of the biggest pricks in a mythology that is not short on dicks. It all depends on the story as to whether they will be portrayed as a hero or a villain.
The film does some interesting ideas with the music and also the idea of the Greek Chorus. In Greek theatre, the Greek Chorus is there to comment on the play’s theme, make jokes, and ultimately show how the ideal audience would react to the events taking place in the play. The idea of the Greek Chorus died off for a number of centuries unless an ancient Greek play was being performed, but was reborn in more modern plays and Broadway style shows. One example of this is Sweeney Todd and it’s reoccurring ”Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” The Muses, who stand in for the Greek Chorus, sing most of the songs in the film. Three of the songs (“Go the Distance”, “One Last Hope”, and “I Won’t Say I’m in Love”) are sung by the main characters of the film. The best one is “Go the Distance” which is a song that always makes me feel better when I’m feeling down. “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” is a great, non-traditional Disney love song and really makes for a good change of pace. The score was, of course, done by Alan Menken, and the songs were done by a new contributor by the name of David Zippel.
When designing the art style for the film, Disney based it heavily off of a combination of ancient Greek art and more modern pop art. It gives the film a very distinctive look and is heavily stylized. It even could go well stylistically with the Pastoral segment of Fantasia. The character animation was based very heavily off of the actors who portrayed the characters, especially Phil and Hades. The animators captured Danny DeVito’s distinctive facial and mouth movements perfectly and Hades even has James Wood’s distinctive sneer. Initially, Hades was going to be a slow talking, quiet, and sinister villain, but when James Woods was cast in the role he turned into a character that talked a mile a minute and seemed a lot like a villainous version of the Genie. Woods even ad-libbed a large number of his roles like Robin Williams did.
Hercules is a very fun film, but if you are super into Greek Mythology and can’t separate this film from the original stories of Heracles, you will not like this film. If you can, you will most likely enjoy this oft-forgotten entry into the Disney canon.