The Walt Disney Corporation is the largest entertainment company in the world and has been for decades. After a string of failures in the seventies and early eighties, the company got a new chairman in 1984, Michael Eisner, who proceeded to shake things up. The animated division was reinvigorated and the first new movie, in which story and well-realized characters took centre stage, was The Little Mermaid (1989), followed by other successes such as Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994).
1997 saw the release of Hercules, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. This is Disney’s spin on the story of the ancient Greek hero. Those familiar with Disney’s take on other existing stories will not be surprised that the movie takes considerable liberties when it comes to Greek mythology. That in itself should not surprise us, since much of Greek mythology doesn’t exactly make for family-friendly viewing.
In keeping with Christian ideas of right and wrong, the movie’s main villain is Hades (voiced by James Woods), who has been given a number of traits commonly associated with the devil. In common with other popular treatments of Greek mythology, the Titans are introduced as forces of chaos and destruction that are locked away and will wreak havoc when unleashed. Of course, the hero’s task is to defeat the Titans in the end.
Hercules the god
Hercules himself is now a god, the son of both Zeus and Hera, which is ironic when you consider that in Greek mythology Hera was his nemesis. Of course, in Greek mythology, Zeus cheats on Hera by sleeping with the mortal woman Alcmene, an issue that would have been difficult to treat in what is essentially supposed to be a children’s movie. As a result, there was no reason for Disney to include Heracles’ twin-brother Iphicles or his nephew Iolaus.
At the beginning of the movie, Zeus creates a gift for the infant Hercules: the winged horse called Pegasus. In Greek mythology, Pegasus emerged from the neck of Medusa after Perseus (Heracles’ great-grandfather) cut off her head, and the horse would later serve as the mount of the hero Bellerophon. In this movie, Pegasus – who is probably familiar to most viewers – serves as Hercules’ ride and doubles as a comedy sidekick.
Hades wishes to take control of the universe and for that to happen he needs to unleash the Titans. The only thing that can stand in Hades’ way is Hercules. In order to kill him, he must be made mortal through a potion (a concept alien to Greek mythology). He doesn’t drink all of the potion, though, and so still retains part of his divinity. He finally ends up with human foster parents (his father is called Amphitryon!), who quickly discover that Hercules is a lot stronger than most human children.
Hercules’ strength causes problems and people are quick to refer to him as a menace. At last, his foster parents reveal that he was adopted and may be the son of Zeus. This is confirmed when he visits Zeus’ temple. He is reunited with Pegasus and sets off to find Philoctetes, who will serve as his instructor. Philoctetes, or “Phil” for short (voiced by Danny DeVito), is a satyr.
In Greek mythology, Philoctetes is actually the name of a Greek leader and archer in the story of the Trojan War (in possession of Heracles’ bow, by the way, as pointed out by Owen Rees). Furthermore, satyrs in myth never act as instructors – the makers were probably thinking of Chiron, the friendly centaur who also served as a teacher for the heroes Achilles and Jason. But with Pegasus as a sidekick, it was probably not desirable from a character design point of view to have another horse-like character in the movie.
Philoctetes is, however, clearly modelled after Chiron, since he devotes some time to explain to Hercules how he trained a lot of heroes (Theseus, Odysseus, and so forth), with the greatest of them all being Achilles. All of these eventually turned out to be failures and so Phil is initially reluctant to train Hercules. It is an interesting idea that however flies in the face of established mythological chronology: Achilles and Odysseus were probably not even born yet when Heracles was engaged in his own adventures, one of which was an assault on Troy that left King Laomedon and his family dead with the exception of one child, the young Podarces (the later King Priam familiar from Homer’s Iliad).
Hercules’ love interest is the seductive Megara, who is portrayed as wiser and more experienced than the somewhat naïve hero. Initially, Megara fulfils a duplicitous role due to a debt she owes Hades, but of course eventually ends up with the story’s protagonist. In Greek mythology, Hera causes Hercules to lose his mind and he ends up killing his children as well as, according to some, his wife, Megara. There is of course no hint of this in the movie.
An original tale
Essentially, the movie is not so much a rendition of the Greek story of Heracles as much as it tells a more or less original story of trying to find your place in the world and becoming who are supposed to be (the song “I can go the distance” encapsulates this well, with “Zero to hero” subverting it, as Arianna Sacco has pointed out).
It borrows liberally from Greek mythology, but at the same time strays so far from the original source material that it can instead be considered more of a sanitized pastiche. The same applies for the overall look of the movie, the buildings and clothing: the makers liberally mixed Greek and Roman cultural elements to create something that evokes the ancient Greco-Roman world in a general sense, as a popular concept rather than a historically accurate entity.
The makers no doubt anticipated many of the points and criticisms expressed above and decided to sort of address these issues immediately in the movie’s opening. A stodgy voice-over (Charlton Heston) begins to tell us about the heroes of ancient Greece, but he is quickly interrupted by one of the Muses. The Muses are gospel singers who pop out from a black-figure vase and proceed to sing the movie’s first song, “The gospel truth”, giving a brief idea of what the viewer can expect from the movie and its titular hero.
This opening effectively sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We should not expect an accurate retelling of the original story of Hercules and instead just sit back and enjoy a film that plays fast and loose with Greek mythology and the ancient world. Indeed, it is an enjoyable romp. And the best thing about the movie is perhaps that it might serve as a gateway for people to the ancient world in general and Greek mythology in particular.
With thanks to Owen Rees and Arianna Sacco for their comments and observations.
This article is part of the series, Hercules on screen.