Bless My Soul, Herc Was on a Roll

We now take a look at Disney’s Hercules. The two previous animated features, while they did contain some humor, tackled some pretty serious issues. This one, on the other hand, is wacky all the way through. It’s not a total farce, as the characters are sympathetic, but it’s full of sight gags, wordplay, and cartoonish violence. Also, everyone in ancient Greece uses Yiddish expressions for some reason. The character designs have the same angular quality as they do in some earlier Disney features, such as Sleeping Beauty, but here it’s at least partially done to evoke Greek art. The movie is based on Greek mythology, but not surprisingly, it isn’t very accurate Greek mythology. There are many contradictory versions of the myths, but they’re all rather perverse and sadistic, hardly the kind of thing you’d want in a children’s movie. Traditionally, the story goes that Zeus had an affair with a mortal named Alcmene, and the child was then named Herakles (“glory of Hera”) in an attempt to appease Zeus’s angry wife. It didn’t work, however, and Hera made the adult Herakles go crazy and kill his family, after which he performed the infamous Twelve Labors as penance. In the film, Hercules is the son of Zeus and Hera, but turned mortal and adopted as a foundling by Alcmene and her husband Amphitryon, in much the same manner as Superman. I suppose this could be considered a full-circle borrowing, since Superman was partially based on heroes like Hercules in the first place. The Twelve Labors aren’t mentioned in the movie, but we do see Hercules performing some of them, while others are mentioned. Particularly amusing is that the skin of the Nemean Lion is that of Scar. Other myths were thrown in as well, like that of Pegasus, who was traditionally ridden by Bellerophon rather than Hercules. In addition, the character is always referred to by his Roman name of Hercules even though the other characters all have their Greek names. I remember seeing a discussion of this, and someone pointed out that to give the gods their Roman names would have resulted in Hades having the same name as Mickey Mouse’s dog. Even Rick Riordan frequently uses the name Hercules alongside Greek names, however; it’s just that well-known.

Since the retcon about Hercules’ birth means that Hera could no longer be his enemy, Disney instead cast Hades in this role. He’s voiced by James Woods, and is interesting both in his design and his characterization as a fast-talking con-man.

He bears little resemblance to the dour Hades of the myths, instead probably having been inspired by popular conceptions of Satan as a sleazy deal-maker who wants to usurp the throne of God. While I don’t know for sure, I doubt the concept of selling your soul, as Megara is said to have done, would have been familiar to the ancient Greeks. Hades’ henchmen, Pain and Panic (voiced by Bobcat Goldthwait and the guy who played Max Headroom, respectively), also appear to owe their designs more to pop culture demons than to anything Greek.

They were probably named after Ares‘ twin sons Phobos and Deimos, although I think “Deimos” more accurately translates to “terror” than “pain.” The word “panic” is also etymologically related to Pan, a god who didn’t appear in this film, at least not that I noticed.

The use of Megara in the film is rather curious. She plays the role of the Disney Princess, but presumably isn’t actually a princess. What’s weird is that the original Megara WAS a princess, being the daughter of King Creon of Thebes. It’s odd that Disney actually rejected a possible contender for the profitable line. Incidentally, Creon was the uncle and brother-in-law of Oedipus, which makes the scene where Megara and Hercules see a play about Oedipus even more amusing. In the myths, Hercules either killed Megara or she left him after he killed their kids. Since Disney obviously leaves this out, I kind of wonder why they used that name at all.

Finally, we come to Hercules’ trainer Philoctetes, who seems to be an amalgam of several different characters. There was a mythological character named Philoctetes, who was a friend (and possible lover) of Hercules, but he wasn’t a satyr. The writers also might have been thinking of Chiron, a centaur who really did train heroes. He didn’t teach Hercules, but he did work with Jason and Achilles, mentioned as students of Phil’s in the movie. I also think the satyr was meant to evoke Rocky’s trainer Mickey, played by Burgess Meredith. And this wouldn’t have been the first time Danny DeVito played a role made famous by Meredith.

It might be bad Greek mythology, but it’s still an entertaining film. I liked the self-parody of Disney inherent in the heavy marketing of Hercules, and there were other clever jokes throughout. It’s hardly one of Disney’s greatest, but it’s fun.

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7 Responses to Bless My Soul, Herc Was on a Roll

  1. hollenius says:

    For the character & art design, Disney brought in British caricaturist Gerald Scarfe to work on the film. He’s probably most famous to Americans via his art for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. He was a fan of Disney’s animation since childhood and was also interested in Greek art, so he was enthusiastic about being asked to join the project, but the Disney animators were significantly less happy about it–they didn’t dislike him or his work, but they DID find it very difficult to draw/animate in his style.

    I am always interested in the Disney films where they took a radically different approach to the overall look and feel of the artwork–I never saw Atlantis because it was a bit of a flop, but from the commercials, the art style really intrigued me (Very angular! Pointy! I like angles!). Al Hirschfeld was supposedly an inspiration for the art style of Aladdin, but I can’t say it came across much in the finished product. (The “Rhapsody In Blue” sequence from Fantasia 2000, on the other hand, was much more recognizable as Hirschfeld-homage.) I think the lines and flow are the things I have always enjoyed the most about animation and cartooning, and the lack of them in CGI features is probably why they leave me so cold, emotionally.

    • Nathan says:

      Yeah, I’ve enjoyed some computer-animated films, but there isn’t as much of an individual style to them. They all kind of look the same.

  2. Mario500 says:

    Why did you refer to Matt Frewer as only “the guy who played Max Headroom”?

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