Bless my soul, Herc was on a roll. Undefeated!

Yeah, still one of my favourite Hercules stories and Disney movies. How could I not love something that gave me Meg? Meg is by far the best thing in the movie. Closely followed by the Muses and Hades.

The songs are still catchy, not a single one of the songs made anyone roll their eyes – as is the case with most older Disney movies – when we watched it over the weekend. Both the songs and the story has aged well. Megara’s dialogue especially.

And let’s not forget Hades’ mood ring hair! Hades is really something to relate to, smushed in between Meg and Hades, Herc comes off as distinctly vanilla.

Which is the point, he’s the hero to juxtapose with these darker characters so that they can be as dark as they are (this is a reversal of Pirates of the Caribbean, where Will and Elizabeth are the vanilla to Captain Jack Sparrow’s spice).

Hercules is in that awkward ugly art phase in the late 90s, when animation was firmly moving into more digital technologies, and that still stands out like a sore thumb.

I absolutely get that drawing each and every single head of that hydra would have been impossible, and that CGI stepped into a hand-drawn animation to make that storytelling element possible.

Had it been hand-drawn, the hydra would probably have had only three heads max.

And even still, knowing this, I frowned the first time I saw it in 1997 and I still do.

This is one of those happy-go-lucky movies that never lets you down.

Does it have plot issues? Yes. Is it mostly leaning on contrivances to make things work? Also, yes.

Aggressively tailored to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, referencing as many 90s pop things as they could cram into one movie, and combining dissonant styles and tones in one story, Disney made Hercules as a cash-grab. It was supposed to piggyback off the success of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, but never performed as well at the box office as Disney had hoped.

It’s a mishmash of many disparate things, perhaps trying to do what The Emperor’s New Groove managed to do: be a comedic take on a well-established mythology that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite supposedly being a comedy, Hercules has some of the darkest plot points in Disney history. That and it illogically yo-yos in tone between the really dark stuff and the comedic stuff.

But despite the drama that went down behind the scenes into making this movie, it’s a fun ride.

The beautiful visual style and playful humour are really enjoyable.

Despite having received criticism about deviating too far from the original Greek mythology and lacking emotional depth, the pop culture references and modern sensibilities don’t detract from the story. Yes, the story and characters can come off as archetypical and lacking in nuance, but that only adds to the pop culture feeling of it.

The story is very culturally tapped into the zeitgeist that was MTV and Cartoon Network at the time, which was what the target audience – me – was consuming.

Hercules made the right references and the right jokes that hit home with the target audience.

I feel like the critics who think that the film should have tackled a deeper story missed the point that while it is a product of its time and its cultural influences, it also has the potential to be read as a thoughtful reflection on the challenges and opportunities of living in a world that is constantly evolving.

On the one hand, the film incorporates many elements of popular culture, including its use of contemporary music, its stylized animation, and its irreverent sense of humour. The soundtrack draws from a wide range of musical genres, from gospel to rock and roll.

The animation style is highly stylized, drawing inspiration from both classical Greek art and contemporary comic books (as well as some Art Deco). It also has a lot of Old Hollywood references, which I love. And the film’s humour, which often relies on anachronistic references and self-aware irony, is characteristic of many films of the late 1990s.

At the same time, Hercules can also be seen as a commentary on pop culture and its influence on modern society (even though it was designed to pander to the consumeristic aspects of celebrity in the 90s). To an MTV kid like myself, this was as much representative of as commentary on that iconic Michael Jackson-esque superstardom that was a product of MTV.

Ultimately, the references are made for the sake of making the references. They don’t really say much about the things they’re attempting to comment on, such as celebrity culture.

For instance, Hercules doesn’t set out to become a hero because he wants to be rich and famous. His goal is to belong aka get into Olympus. Fame and fortune happen to him as a side-effect, meaning that he’s never in a position to learn that being rich and famous doesn’t solve all the problems he thought it would.

Had Hercules had a starting point of being arrogant, or maybe equating being rich to personal worth, this narrative would be more compelling. Because in order to frame wealth and fame as not being the point of becoming a true hero, Hercules should have genuinely wanted it at the start, so that he could then have learned the error of his ways.

A Disney hero is about as far as you can get from a classical Greek hero.

The Ancient Greek myths aim more to explain the world than to just entertain, and the Hellenistic idea of a hero is drastically different to what we have today. Heroes were historical figures of import, people with exceptional abilities or who did exceptional things. And were almost always descended from Zeus, because, well… he got around.

Greek heroes were usually deeply flawed—acts of wrath or displays of anger are not uncommon in Hellenistic narratives, as they are central to many stories and conflicts—and not necessarily nice people. While our modern definition of a hero centres more around selflessness, Ancient Greek heroes were often seeking glory instead. They weren’t inherently good and didn’t aim to embody goodness or ideal morality, but were rather culturally important figures.

Though the story in Hercules is rooted in Greek Mythology, though they combined the Titanomachy and the Gigantomachy to add to the already general mishmash of the movie, the strongest influences are modern day legends Rocky (an underdog story about a boxer who triumphs against all odds) and Superman (a Christ allegory featuring an alien who comes to earth to set a good example for the humans).

Hercules is constantly reminding you just how derivative it is, lifting scenes from its progenitors almost directly. Sports movies, like Rocky, usually end in a big game or match that the character or team has to win, and superhero movies, like Superman, tend to culminate in some kind of boss fight where the hero demonstrates his altruistic motivation to protect the masses.

In combining both of these narrative arcs, we get Hercules training to become a hero, but he never really has a big match at the end. And being a hero is ultimately just a means to an end for him: to become reinstated in Olympus (which isn’t selfless).

Most of Hercules is just fluff.

In the end, the only conclusion I can draw is that despite having everything under the sun crammed into it, Hercules only serves logically as a love story.

Some of the most memorable scenes are when he meets Meg, her struggles with morality as she falls in love, and them eventually getting together, albeit the obstacles she has to over come and in stark contrast to the obstacles Hercules has to overcome. But maybe that’s just a Freudian slip of how men’s and women’s roles were etched in the cultural psyche at the time?

The Chosen One is an easy narrative to write because you don’t need a compelling reason for why your hero is at the centre of the conflict. But this is precisely why it’s also hard to make a Chosen One narrative interesting.

And this is a problem with Hercules, because his character arc is a lot weaker than Meg’s. So, I’m going to conclude that—despite the name, the set up, and the marketing—this is really Meg’s story (just like I concluded that Jack Sparrow is really the protagonist of The Pirates of the Caribbean). Meg’s dilemma is more intense and her stakes much higher than Herc’s.

She’s also an amazing Disney heroine; she’s worldly and experienced, seems to be pushing thirty rather than just out of diapers (I’m exaggerating), starts the movie in league with the villain, and she grows, overcoming personal obstacles as well as external obstacles to be rewarded in the end.


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