Thoughts On: Hercules (1997)
The son of Zeus fights through trials and tribulations to earn his way back to immortality and Mount Olympus.
Hercules, much like Aladdin and Lion King, is a great example of Disney-fied source material. Whilst Aladdin is the Disney adaptation of Arabian Nights and Lion King is a re-working of Hamlet, Hercules takes the vast and sprawling tales told over the centuries of a demigod called Heracles and pulls them into a 90 minute long narrative. With the monumental difference between the magnitude of the source material and the time in which Disney must tell this story, there are obviously going to come downfalls. To some, one of these downfalls would be the complete reinvention of Greek mythology. We could spend all day listing the ways in which the tales of Hercules have been skewed, but the main difference would probably be that Hercules isn’t the son of Hera…
… who is Zeus’ older sister as well as the goddess of women and marriage. Disney glance over these facts, leaving you to believe that Hera isn’t Hercules’ step-mother, instead his birth mother, and that she isn’t Zeus’ sister. More significantly, they completely disregard the fact that she was supposed to have absolutely despised Hercules – so much so that she constantly tried to have him killed. And by constantly, I mean time and time and time and time again. This is all because, as mentioned, Hera is the goddess of women and marriage. Married to her younger brother Zeus, which made her queen of Olympus, she was cheated on (Zeus did this quite a lot – notoriously so) when he slept with Alcmene, a mortal and Hercules’ birth mother who is reduced to his foster mother by Disney. This, understandably so, infuriated Hera on many, many levels; hence the constant murderous ploys. Coming back to Alcmene, however….
Alcmene is not only supposed to have had other sons, Hercules’ brothers that we never see, but was a princess, granddaughter to Perseus – which makes her Zeus’ great granddaughter. And to top it all off she was said to have been as beautiful as Aphrodite.
We could go on, but there isn’t much of a point. All we need to ask is if this reinvention is justified and if it works. In my opinion, yes on both fronts. Greek mythology is astoundingly vast and the subject of a plethora of remakes and adaptations. Disney need not be faithful to the source material as there isn’t really one true and singular author nor source. Moreover, if you want access to more ‘accurate versions’ you have more than enough material out there to find. And so the most crucial observation in this regard links back to The Lion King and Aladdin. Whilst Disney aren’t providing us something entirely original, they are attempting to make something new – and that’s something I’m more than willing to embrace.
As implied, however, I do think there are downfalls to this approach that Disney has always taken from Snow White onward. The incredibly condensed run times of Disney features doesn’t allow the best of pacing in regard to pivotal character moments and emotional beats. That is to say that we’re never really given time to digest the nuances of a character’s arc. We arguably see this in every Disney film, and whilst it is handled well with montage at times, there are moments like the one in which Hercules finds out that Meg has (kind of) double crossed him…
… that just aren’t too satisfying as they’re jumped past far too quickly. Within Hercules this partly comes down to the direction and animation style; it’s simply not as powerful or expressive as that seen in something such as Dumbo.
The reason why Hercules isn’t as poignant as Dumbo comes down to the application of simplicity and pure cinema; Dumbo makes masterful transitions between dialogue heavy sequences and scenes in which you only rely on the image and music alone to understand the story whilst Hercules does not.
This is just a minor flaw that I see in Hercules however. For the most part, Hercules is a highly immersive and enjoyable film with some great songs and ingenious choices in regard to an approach to this classical narrative. The greatest of these choices has to be the disregard of Charlton Heston’s opening narration for that of the 5 Muses.
And this marks the best aspect of Hercules. It measuredly brings a tale from antiquity toward the contemporary – and purposefully so. In such, the references to the future and pop culture within Hercules allows for a commentary on modern day consumerism and idealism that always has been, and still is, relevant. The best sequence in which to see this is certainly the montage of Hercules’ many labours…
From shoe deals to credit cards to action figures to stores to drinks, Hercules’ rise is used to comment on what ‘zero to hero’ actually means. To many, it means earning money, fame and notoriety, but ‘true heroism’ is a lot more abstract and harder to obtain. In such, this film means to ask its audience (young kids and teens) who their idols should be and what they should mean to them.
A nice parallel that is brought up with the reference to Air-Hercs is one to Michael Jordan.
From around 84 to 93 Jordan was in a league of his own in the NBA, gaining unimaginable fame and fortune. But, then came the whole gambling controversy and then his retirement from basketball so he could play baseball. Following this was his return to basketball and arguably his redemption. A child aspiring to be ‘like Mike’ could take many things away from his career up into the late 90s. One of the worst takeaways however would probably this symbol…
To want to be like Mike is fine. But, if you only want the shoes that are named after you, you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons. To be like Mike should mean you aspire to one day reach or surpass his skill level; to be as dedicated and hardworking as him. In such, idols should be an intellectual and emotional symbol of heroism (of any sort) rather than a piece of fashion – and this is the simple point that is made throughout this narrative.
Hercules is not just about going from zero to hero, much rather, going the distance – a distance that transcends a simpler idea of getting rich and becoming famous. So, like Mike, Hercules, in the most cinematic of ways, learns of self-sacrifice and determination…
And so, whilst we may come away from this narrative with an image such as this…
… we have only got to this point by taking Hercules’ journey of endurance with him. In such, we are made to understand that this symbol of heroism isn’t one earned through punching things, but through a much more sustainable model of power and influence; empathy, self-sacrifice and love.
Without getting too soppy, this is a key change to the story of Hercules. In the mythological tales he wins Meg by defeating the Minyans (a group of people who inhabited an area around what we’ve come to call The Mediterranean Sea) at Orchomenos. He has 8 children with her before one day killing them all – this was all, as to be expected, Hera’s doing, who put him in a state of delusion. Hercules then later goes on to marry another woman called Deianeira, who inadvertently poisons him when she assumes he is pursuing another woman (Iole). She does this with the blood of a centaur Hercules killed with a poison arrow, thinking that it would act as a love potion. The burn of this poison, which Deianeira doused one of his tunics in, is so intense that Hercules eventually gets a friend to set him on fire and is allowed to die. And this is how he gains his way into Olympus as a God. Heroic, right?
To condense Hercules’ story into a Disney film like this would obviously produce the most confusing of messages; one that seems to conclude that you should conquer and kill a lot before being destroyed by your own ego and allowed to become a God. This is why Disney have opted for this differing path toward Olympus for Hercules – which he ultimately denies. And as morally simplistic and bland as that seems, this narrative design holds weight when we consider celebrities that fall into the class of someone such as Charlie Sheen…
Whilst Sheen didn’t gain his initial fame from this, ‘tiger blood’ will certainly go down as a major chapter in his book of legacy. And more and more, seemingly, we gravitate towards bombshell personalities; we look for the loud and explosive who somehow made it from zero to hero without assessing their true worth. To directly contradict myself, this has probably been the case throughout history; the idea of a zero to hero comes before questions of substance. And this is what the narrative of Hercules is attempting to combat. Instead of heroism being a quantifiable status earned arbitrarily and through lowly means of achieving fame, Disney’s story of Hercules takes a moment to define what it means to be a hero, to then say to its audience that, if you want to be remembered like this…
… you’ll not only need to go through hell many times over, but be willing to step out to just this:
Moreover, a symbol of your achievement, such as this…
… isn’t so much for you, but a testament to how you got to this final point and to those who helped you get there – and all for others to see and learn from.
This is why, though it is simple, Hercules is a triumphant Disney classic. It not only plays with form and reinvents an ancient tale to create something that is, under the guise of entertainment, new, but it uses this pop-centic approach to say something with some amount of weight about how we select and view our idols.
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