Disney Classics #35: Hercules

It’s weird that when I saw this movie in the cinema I wasn’t impressed, because it’s now become one of my favourite Disney flicks.

I think as a kid who had read about Hercules and seen him portrayed a bit more traditionally, this film wasn’t what I expected and wasn’t the all out action movie I was expecting. For example, Hades (James Woods) is the villain and Hercules’ background is changed, making him a full god, as the real story that Zeus liked to play around isn’t exactly kid friendly. It’s similar to why I never really liked The Sword in the Stone, because it was a watered down version of a legend I knew already, the difference being that as an adult watching this, I really like how they play around with the legend.71qzf6ebyil-_sy550_

So, the story here is that Hercules (Tate Donovan, as an adult) is the son of Zeus and Hera (Rip Torn and Samantha Eggar) and loved by all the gods, apart from Hades, his uncle, the moody, scheming god of the underworld. Hades has a plan to overthrow Zeus with the aid of the Titans, but the Fates warn him that if Hercules fights in the final battle, his plan will fail.

Hades sends his minions Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwaite and Matt Frewer) to turn Hercules mortal and off him, but in the tradition of awful Disney henchmen, they mess it up, leaving him mortal but still super strong. Hades bides his time and prepares for his coup.

Meanwhile, Hercules grows up ostracized because of his strength. This part of the movie baffles me as the regular Greeks give Hercules a ton of grief which seems foolish because there’s running the risk of angering a dude they know can tear down whole buildings. Anyway, learning the truth about where he comes from, he discovers that if he proves himself a true hero he can return to Olympus.

And so Hercules heads out to find Phil aka Philocetes (Danny DeVito) the jaded trainer of heroes, who reluctantly agrees to help him. Hercules surprises and impresses him and soon becomes a hero, and Hades learns of his survival. Danny DeVito’s raspy tones are a delight here and the sarcastic, lecherous faun is great fun.

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Hades realizes he can use Hercules’ naivety against him and his attraction for Megara (Susan Egan), who is in Hades’ power having sold her soul. Meg agrees but slowly begins to have doubts, learning that Hercules is a genuinely nice guy.

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Hercules and Meg grow closer

It’s this love story that is one of the major strengths of the movie, and is probably one of Disney’s best. Meg is introduced as a cynical figure, hardened by previous hurts and she’s lost faith in the goodness of people. Hercules’ idealistic, simple character makes her rethink this, and the slow softening of her stance and growing affection is well handled. As she slowly falls for Hercules she tries to maintain her detached air and distance, leading to one of my favourite Disney songs of all time, “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” where she tries to deny her feelings, arguing against the narrators and finally, reluctantly accepting that she is in love, although she won’t risk expressing it.

The love story also serves as the driving force for the plot, as it’s his love which leaves Hercules open to being manipulated, sacrificing his strength and allowing Hades to make his play. It’s here that Hades is smarter than the average villain, and instead of just disregarding Hercules, he still tries to eliminate him, sending a cyclops to attack him while he mounts his attack on Olympus. Despite his lack of powers Hercules goes out to face the giant, but is utterly outclassed and badly beaten.

Midway through Meg sacrifices herself to save him and in doing so voids the deal, as Hades promised her safety as part of the bargain. Hercules is restored and saves the day, before heading to the underworld to save Meg.

The film works because it manages to mix the action, music and story well. It’s a different kind of story for Disney, with a male protagonist and a more heroic, action orientated story. The themes of heroism, sacrifice and love are all handled brilliantly throughout.

Hercules is goofy and innocent, but never overly stupid and very easy to root for. There are some decent action sequences as he fights different monsters, and the training montage is straight out of an ’80s action movie.

Another factor which works is the fact that Disney play with the genre, and add a postmodern spin. This is done through the way the film shows Hercules becoming popular with the public, leading to merchandising, adoring fans and celebrity, which poke fun at some of Disney’s own merchandise and celebrity athletes.

There are nods to other films and a few jokes geared towards the adults watching, and nowhere is this more obvious than in James Woods’ Hades, a sarcastic tour-de-force. Woods’ vocal performance is sensational as he makes Hades a strangely likeable villain, funny and clever in places, but undermined by his inability to control his temper. Hades is easily one of my favourite Disney villains.

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I also really like the uses of the muses as a chorus throughout, explaining the plot through gospel inflected numbers. It’s strange because this was one of the aspects that I didn’t enjoy first time round, I think because I thought it was out of place and silly, which is exactly why as an adult I love it so much.

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The muses are a nice touch and their interruption of Charlton Heston’s opening narration is the movie showing it’s hand that it will be a more playful, anachronistic version of the legendary hero.

The muses also get some cracking songs along the way, especially “A Star is Born” and “Zero to Hero”, and the soundtrack is fantastic across the board, not just in furthering the story but as stand alone songs. “I Won’t Say (I’m in love)” is superb, as I already mentioned, but another absolute classic is Hercules’ “Go the Distance”, a rousing, soaring power ballad which I’ve added to my list of songs to pump myself up ahead of challenges.

The irreverent tone, unique art style and fantastic music mean that I love this movie now, giving a fresh, fun spin to an old legend and ticking a lot of boxes for me. An absolute cracker.

Disney Score: 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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