“Hercules is a cartoon, a big cartoon!” This is how master animator Eric Goldberg described Disney’s take on the Greek God in a 1997 interview.
And that is, indeed, the sensibility behind the studio’s 35th animated feature, from co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker. They brought their irreverent touch from Aladdin to this film and even kicked it up a notch.
“We call it an epic comedy,” said producer Alice Dewey in 1997. “So, that pretty much sums it up.”
Musker and Clements came across the idea for Hercules as a feature in 1993 when they reviewed several projects in the early days of development, and saw artwork from animator Joe Haidar, who had initially pitched the idea.
The directors were both intrigued by the possibilities of Greek mythology, and giving it a different spin..
“It is definitely an epic,” said co-director Ron Clements of Hercules in 1997. “It has this ‘bigness’ to it. But, throughout the movie, we’re pulling together the ‘bigness’ with ‘light-heartedness,’ and it’s an interesting combination. There’s a comedic element that runs through the film, even in some of its most serious moments.”
Disney’s Hercules would begin on Mount Olympus, with the Gods Zeus and Hera welcoming their son, Hercules. The Lord of the Underworld, Hades, arrives at the welcome party for Hercules. He is secretly planning a “hostile takeover” of Mount Olympus.
The villain learns that, in eighteen years, he can take over Zeus’ territory, but his one obstacle will be Hercules. He concocts a plan and dispatches his sidekicks, Pain, and Panic, to Mount Olympus to kidnap Hercules, administer a potent “Grecian formula,” which would render him mortal, and then dispose of the baby on Earth. The two dimwits fail to give Hercules all the potion, which leaves the babe on Earth human, with God-like strength, and raised by a mortal couple. He learns of his origins and that the only way he can return to his father, Zeus and Mount Olympus is to prove himself a true hero on Earth.
He seeks help from the satyr Philoctetes (Phil), a hero trainer, and meets Meg, a tough, resourceful woman unlike any he has ever met before (who is also working for Hades).
As he eventually squares off against Hades to save both Earth and Mount Olympus, Hercules becomes a celebrity, thanks to his God-like strength.
Although based on Greek mythology, the film reflected many modern-day sensibilities. Everything from Nike, American Express, and the Disney company’s own successful retail organization, The Disney Store, is parodied.
Additionally, Hercules made very sharp, comedic comments on marketing, promotion, and celebrity status.
The movie did all this, not just with its distinct tone but its look. Co-director Musker is a big fan of artist Gerald Scarfe, a cartoonist, and illustrator most famous for the disturbing artwork created for Pink Floyd: The Wall, the 1979 album, and the 1982 movie, and wanted to merge Scarfe’s sensibilities with that of the Disney style.
Scarfe was brought to the Disney studio and created early conceptual artwork and character design that heavily influenced the look of Hercules, giving the film its bold graphic appearance.
“Once we saw what he did, we were really stimulated by that,” said co-director Musker in 1997, “and we kept encouraging him to do more. We tried to have his pen point touch all the characters in the film.”
Adding to the differentiators in Hercules was a very distinct voice cast: Tate Donovan brought innocence to the main character (animated by Andreas Deja), and Susan Egan (the original Belle in Disney’s Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast) was perfect as the hard-boiled, yet conflicted Meg (animated by Ken Duncan) and Danny DeVito was in full “Louie DePalma from Taxi” mode as Phil (the character was also a hysterical caricature of DeVito, animated by Eric Goldberg).
As Hades, actor James Woods brought to the screen one of Disney’s most distinctive villains. A change from the “above-it-all,” highbrow villains like Frollo in Hunchback or Ratcliffe in Pocahontas, Hades was more of a fast-talking schmoozer, and the character, crafted by animator Nik Ranieri, is a wonder to behold when he’s on-screen.
The rest of the Hercules cast included Rip Torn as Zeus, Samantha Eggar as Hera, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Matt Frewer as Pain and Panic, with Charlton Heston as the film’s opening narrator.
Adding to the more contemporary tone of Hercules were the songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel. Most of them (including the infectious showstopper, “Zero to Hero”) are performed by the wonderful Muses, a combination of a Greek chorus and a stellar Motown group.
Last summer marked the 25th anniversary of Hercules, which was released with the same event-type marketing that is, ironically, lampooned in the film. Not only were there enough toys, t-shirts, and fast-food campaigns connected with Hercules to fill several summer movie seasons, but Disney also partnered with New York City to stage a parade through the streets of Manhattan to promote the film. On June 14, 1997, “Disney’s Hercules Electrical Parade” marched up Fifth Avenue with light-up floats from Disney’s theme park “Main Street Electrical Parade,” including newly designed Hercules-themed floats.
Critics enjoyed the film’s uber-irreverence, and while Hercules did well at the box office, its final take fell short of projections.
But, two and a half decades later, like several films of the 90s that have benefitted from home video re-visits, many have come to appreciate and recognize Hercules for its unique style and its always meaningful message, as Hercules tries to find an answer to the question of what defines a hero.
“In the movie, we spend a lot of time trying to define that,” said producer Dewey. “Is it fame? Is it fortune? Is it wealth? Is it notoriety? Is it good deeds? What is it to be a hero? It’s the lesson that he learns in the end.”