I Can Go the Merchandising Route: Disney’s Hercules

If we forget about A Goofy Movie—which I, at least, am willing to forget—the animated films that immediately followed Disney’s The Lion King had been, for want of better words, serious. Ambitious. Thoughtful. Self-consciously artistic. Filled with Serious Messages about the Color of the Wind, and Being Different. If not quite the box office triumphs that Aladdin and The Lion King had been, they did well enough to have Disney plan for three more ambitious films: a film based on the legendary Chinese warrior Hua Mulan; a technically innovative work based on Tarzan, and a second Fantasia film.

And popping up right in the middle of all of this serious, ambitious, beautifully animated work? Hercules.

A film whose approach to Greek mythology can be at best called “irreverent,” whose greatest ambition might have been to win the “Most Inside Jokes in a Disney Animated Film Ever” Award. A film that abandoned pretty much all of the ambitious animation and technical work that the previous films had focused on, the only film in the Disney Renaissance that could be said to go backwards in terms of animation development.

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Possibly because Hercules was the first—and so far only—animated Disney film brought to life more or less because of—can we say coercion? Blackmail? When Disney executives are involved? Perhaps not. Let us instead use the not entirely accurate term “trade off.” Disney might say, “financial concerns.”

These, er, “financial concerns” dated all the way back to the mid 1980s, when then-writers/directors Ron Clements and John Musker approached Jeffrey Katzenberg, the brand new chairman of Walt Disney Pictures, with a brand new idea for a film: Treasure Island—in space! Katzenberg, alas, was no lover of pirates (fictional or, later, digital ones), and suggested that the two work on The Little Mermaid instead. When that film did well, Clements and Muskers pitched their idea again. Katzenberg, still unenthusiastic, said no, and put them to work on Aladdin. When that film did well, an undaunted Clements and Musker brought Katzenberg more drawings of their space pirates.

The intervening years had not made Katzenberg any fonder of pirates, let alone space pirates. But he finally agreed to a deal: if Clements and Musker made a silly, crowd pleasing picture—emphasis on silly and crowd pleasing—with at least one ballad that could be churned into a top 40 hit—Clements and Musker could maybe, possibly, finally have their pirates film. With just a few conditions: one, this silly, crowd pleasing film had to make money. And, Katzenberg added, since the Disney Parks and Disney stores were expanding, it would help if Hercules had a solid merchandizing aspect as well.

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Not surprisingly, this sort of blackmailing approach meant that no one started work on Hercules with much enthusiasm, but everyone started work keeping merchandise thoughts in mind, adding not one, but three potential characters who could be turned into cute, cuddly toys, a main character who could be turned into a little toy action figure, and angular design elements that could easily be printed on clothing. The filmmakers also added two power ballads, “Go the Distance” and “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” just in case one failed to become the now standard Disney Top 40 hit. “Go the Distance” made it. In the end, the only merchandise element not added to Hercules was a Disney princess—but then again, Hercules was created in the years before the official launch of the Disney Princesses franchise.

Building the film towards merchandising instead of, say, story, or character, had its problems, most notably that it left animators even less interested than usual—if that was possible—in the source material. It also led animators to add a sequence to the film where the main character becomes a major celebrity, lending his image—and his handprints—to all sorts of items: sports drinks, toys, and so on. These corporate images have little to do with the film character, but they do seem to sell. Ha ha. Even the evil minions end up sipping the drinks and wearing Air-Hercs. Ha-ha. Hercules apparently uses the money from this to build his human adoptive parents a splendid new house, which is nice (buy those toys, kiddies—you’re helping Disney executives take care of their parents!) and to turn his own home and training center into a popular tourist attraction, just like certain large theme parks in two of the U.S.’s largest states. It’s amusing, if you don’t know just how the writer/directors got dragged into all this, and perhaps a bit bitter and cynical if you do, and perhaps just a few too many self-referential gags if you’re just trying to watch the film—not to mention that, just two decades later, some of the gags are already not dating well.

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But even if animators could point to the numerous Herakles artifacts to show that people in ancient times didn’t hesitate to use the guy to sell things either (a point made by at least two Disney cast members in my hearing), a celebrity Hercules endorsing specific lines of sandals is not just not exactly part of the original myth, but almost emphasizes just how far off this representation of the main myth is from its original. Partly because, as noted, no one making the film was particularly interested in creating an “authentic” depiction of Hercules—and even if they had been, the recent attempt at “authenticity” with Pocahontas had not led to a huge blockbuster success, but also probably because somewhere along the line someone realized that a faithful representation of the main myth of Hercules, which includes insanity, child murder, trickery, a descent into hell, and a rather unpleasant side interlude involving some stables, was perhaps not really ideal Disney material. That, of course, had not stopped Disney from adapting other not really ideal Disney material, though the mixed results of that was perhaps another reason why, apart from letting Hercules do a few of the Twelve Labors during a montage, the animators threw out most of the source material.

Hercules, for instance was no longer the bastard son of Zeus—marital infidelity being one of many subjects Disney wanted to avoid—but rather the son of Zeus and Hera. Instead of sleeping with about half the people he encountered (I don’t feel I’m exaggerating much here), the film Hercules is positively chaste, falling in love once, with the first girl he meets as a trained hero, and never once looking at another girl during the entire film. This, although at one point he’s on screen with Aphrodite. Granted, it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but, Aphrodite, people. And Hercules barely notices. Quite a switch from the Greek hero credited with sleeping with around one hundred or so people, depending upon which myths you believe.

Indeed, for a film supposedly based on ancient Greek mythology, Hercules has very little of it. Only a few of the Greek gods even appear in the film—Zeus, Hera (with only a few lines, and considerably kinder and more maternal than her description in the The Iliad would suggest), Hermes (far more like David Letterman’s band leader Paul Schaffer than his description in The Odyssey would suggest), and Hades (far more hilarious than any ancient text would suggest) plus the Fates, here forced to share a single eye, a trait more usually associated with the Graeae, three women from a different myth. A few other gods get very minor cameo roles or mentions—if you watch closely, you might notice Aphrodite, Athena (I think, based on the little owl), Ares, Hephaestus, Narcissus (he gets a joke), Poseidon, and someone who is either Helios or Apollo, all in non-speaking roles. But that’s about it—except five of the Nine Muses, who sing, they assure us, the “gospel” truth.

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Let’s try to move past this, since, after all, the word “gospel” was originally Greek, though only after noting that the film uses the Latin “Hercules,” but the Greek “Zeus,” “Hera,” “Hades,” and “Hermes,” instead of “Jupiter,” “Juno,” “Hades,” and “Mercury.” The Greeks all use Roman numerals. Which is to say, if you’re a stickler about these sorts of things, this is not your film.

The few things that were kept: Hercules is still the son of Zeus, and still raised on earth by a mortal family, though his mortal twin brother, who barely plays a part in the original myth, is completely dropped here. He’s still unnaturally strong, although in the film, this is thanks to a touch of divinity that still remains after he almost drinks the entire potion meant to kill him. He still fights monsters. And he still descends into Hell—if this time to save someone, not to capture a terrifying dog.

And that’s about it. Instead of the story of a tortured hero, suffering from the unjust hatred of a powerful goddess, who must roam the world accomplishing impossible tasks to try to rid himself of blood guilt, it’s the by now typical Disney story of an outsider who doesn’t quite fit in, who is trying to find his place in the world. It’s the formula used in almost all of the Disney Renaissance films from The Little Mermaid to Tarzan, with varying levels of success, before getting mostly dropped in subsequent—and less financially successful—films.

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The slight difference from these other films: if Hercules fails, everything fails with him—Olympus and Earth, making this the largest stake in a Disney film yet. In comparison, if the others fail, they just doom themselves and a comparatively limited group of people. Which is just one reason why it’s rather surprising that it’s so hard for Hercules to find people willing to help him.

Hercules starts off, after all, more or less chased out of his home town, by people terrified of his superior strength and his general clumsiness. I get this, really, I do, but I also find it incredible that, given the damage he can casually cause, no one has pulled him aside and offered to help train him in control—if only to prevent future mass destruction. They don’t, of course, for plot reasons—the film needs to be able to introduce Danny DeVito at some point, but just as I typed that, I realized that plot point could have been introduced sooner as well—either by having someone realize much earlier that Hercules needed training, and thus saying something along the lines of, hmm, do we know anyone who can train heroes? Other than Phil, who is not overly good at it?

And it’s not just the home town people, either. Zeus greets his son not by, I don’t know, offering help and training, by almost immediately sending him off to Phil. (Without, I must add, warning Phil.) Phil, in his turn, isn’t particularly interested in helping out Hercules—even though by this time Hercules doesn’t just have super strength, but a flying horse—really something that ought to have encouraged Phil to start the superhero training process a bit faster. Later, Phil tells Pegasus not to help as Hercules tackles a monster, and just a few minutes later, an entire city decides to sit around and watch Hercules fight a different monster, without doing a thing to help. Which, ok, is probably the sensible response, but between this and Zeus’ “Yeah, you gotta figure out this heroism thing on your own, kid,” it all seems a little—I don’t know, callous?

And while I’m on this note, why, exactly, does Zeus send Hercules to Phil, who, according to his own admission, has failed pretty much every other hero that he’s trained? OLYMPUS IS GOING TO DIE AND EVIL WILL TAKE OVER THE WORLD IF YOU SCREW THIS UP, ZEUS. GET THE RIGHT TRAINER.

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Granted, Hercules is meant to be a pretty lighthearted film, one of many reasons its comparatively high death toll is a bit surprising, even if the death toll is for the most part not all that long lasting, and Hercules does need to do at least some of his heroism on his own. But the treatment of Hercules still comes off as rather unfair, especially in a scene where Phil angrily walks out on Hercules. It’s more or less an echo of a similar scene in Aladdin, when the Genie angrily walks out (well, vanishes out) on Aladdin. But the Genie vanishes out on because Aladdin is doing two seriously wrong things: breaking a pretty important promise to the Genie, and lying about something fairly significant to numerous other characters. Hercules, on the other hand, is upset that his friend and tutor is saying mean (if truthful) things about his girlfriend. They aren’t equal sins, and having them result in equal punishment does make it feel as if Hercules is getting a rather rough deal. Which does, come to think of it, accurately reflect the original myth.

Also somewhat reflecting the original myth: it’s surprisingly sexual, especially for a film aiming for a G rating, almost from the moment that the five Muses start singing. They assure us that Hercules is hot, a feeling shared by a later group of presumably teenage girls who pursue Hercules in his home-turned-tourist-attraction. Phil spends his spare time leering at women and making various suggestive comments. Phil, granted, is a satyr, a creature associated with blatant sexuality in Greek mythology, but there’s still something a bit disconcerting about how the film has him ogling and attempting to pick up or touch nearly every woman that he comes in contact with until the very end of the film. At which point, possibly as a reward, he gets Aphrodite. It’s played for comedy, and the women have no problem tossing Phil off, but it’s still kinda creepy, if fully in the tradition of Greek mythology as envisioned by Disney all the way back to Fantasia.

Also, Pain and Panic disguise themselves as a seductive flying horse to trap Pegasus.

Which brings us to Meg.

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Meg occupies a rather unusual position in the Disney canon: she’s the first love interest ordered to seduce another character for nefarious purposes. Oh, she’s certainly not the first character who absolutely, positively must seduce another character—or else. The Beast will remain a Beast, for instance—and his (probably) mostly innocent servants will be forced to spend the rest of their lives, or perhaps eternity, as furniture. Or even the first character to do so under a pretense—Jasmine in Aladdin, for instance, distracts Jafar by pretending that she has fallen in love with him—giving Aladdin a moment to maybe, possibly, grab that lamp. Or—arguably—even the first to do so under the orders of the villain—Ariel in The Little Mermaid was, after all, more or less following Ursula’s instructions.

But Meg is the first Disney love interest who is seducing the protagonist with the express intent of causing him potential harm. She’s also the first Disney love interest who is working for the villain—knowingly. And—unlike every other Disney protagonist or love interest so far—Meg has fallen in love before. It went badly. That left her cynical, even bitter.

It also left her interesting. Meg is, granted, mostly a plot device in the film, used to let Hades know that Hercules is still alive (how did he not know this? Hades, you are very unobservant) and later used to remove and restore Hercules’ superstrength, before conveniently dying so that Hercules can finally—after rescuing hundreds of people (apparently) and defeating various monsters and becoming a major celebrity—become a hero. Who knew that rescuing just one girl from death was more heroic than saving hundreds more?

And if she’s used mostly as a plot device, that only slightly broken heart of gold, along with a touch of sarcasm, make her just a bit more than that—as does her decision, towards the end of the film, to smile and turn away from the man she loves—the man who has just plunged into a cold stream of dead ghosts to save her. She wishes him luck, but never once asks him to stay with her, or even seems to think that she could ask—which given what Hercules just did for her says quite a lot about her self esteem. But it also makes her one of the very few Disney protagonists willing to give up the person she loves for his sake.

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Hercules has one more surprising moment: in the end, Hercules decides to return to earth and a mortal existence with Meg, instead of finally taking his place in Olympus, as he always wanted. I’m all for this, despite the multiple questions it creates, such as, if Zeus can so easily make Hercules no longer mortal, why couldn’t he do this to Hades earlier? Or did Zeus just not realize the threat? And since Hercules became a nice glowing godly hero able to ride clouds after plunging into Hades and death to save Meg, why exactly can’t Meg become a nice glowing godly heroine, given that she only died to save Hercules—and that her injury and death in that self-sacrificing moment was the key to restoring Hercules’ strength—and thus saving Olympus and the entire world?

But Hercules is not the sort of film that wants to ask questions like that. It’s silly, it’s bright, it has some rather questionable parental relationships, many of the jokes are already starting to get a bit dated, the protagonist is one of Disney’s blandest, and I’m not really sure that sending Hades down to the depths of his own realms is a permanent solution. On the other hand, it also has James Woods playing Hades and having the time of his life. He loved the role so much that he insisted on voicing the part in all later Hercules material, to the despair and irritation of animators who had difficulties animating his rapid speech patterns. Hades has little if anything in common with the god depicted in most Greek myths, but his despair over his underlings is marvelous, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. And if the bright, angular animation was somewhat—ok, more than somewhat—at odds with every other film in the Disney Renaissance, it does help the film pop out from the other films of the decade. It’s a cartoon, and in that, it stretches right back to Disney’s roots.

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Hercules did well at the box office, and spawned both a direct-to-video prequel and an animated series that despite contradicting a rather central part of the film’s plot, did well enough to run for two seasons, with James Woods reprising his role as Hades out of pure love for the part. It was just successful enough to finally—finally—let John Musker and Ron Clements plunge ahead with their pirates in space film.

But first, Disney had a few more films to focus on. Serious films. Films that would once again stretch the boundaries of animation. And films that would move out of Disney’s familiar territories and head into South America (sorta) and Asia (even more sorta.)

Mulan, coming up next.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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