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D23 Expo 2017: Panel Recap – Zero to Hero: The Making of ‘Hercules’

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Muses unite because 2017 marks the celebration of 20 years since the release of the Disney animated classic Hercules into theaters. At the D23 Expo, they had a panel called “Zero to Hero: The Making of Hercules“, which featured behind-the-scenes information from all the major creators involved.

The panel guests included directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Ken Duncan (character animation), Susan Egan (voice of Megara), Tate Donvan (voice of Hercules), and Eric Goldberg (animator). We also got a video greeting from artist Gerald Scarfe, who was a key designer on the film.

The process for Hercules started in 1993. Clements and Musker thought they were going to do Treasure Planet, but they were asked to pick 1 out of 30 projects in development first.  They chose Hercules because:

  1. Greek mythology was new to Disney aside from the Pastoral Symphony from Fantasia.
  2. They saw Hercules as a superhero and wanted to make Disney’s first animated superhero film.
  3. They were huge comic book fans and were excited to bring that world to Disney.
  4. They wanted to make it into a sports movie. “Hercules was basically Michael Jordan”.
  5. The mash up of a lot of different genres was a fun challenge.

To get inspiration they watched 1930s screwball comedies by Preston Sturges and sincere films of Frank Capra. They wanted to create a Jimmy Stewart-type character for Hercules. “We didn’t want him to be dumb so we made him naive, simple and earnest. The battle of the film was not good vs evil but idealism vs cynicism.”

It is true that when you think about Hercules everyone surrounding the lead is a cynical character from Megara and Phil to Hades. This was partly inspired by the grim events of 1994 the team had faced including Northridge Earthquake, LA riots, floods and more. “We needed a hero.”

Naturally they did all the research Disney normally does taking a trip to Greece to get inspired. The design of Hercules was inspired by the actor Robert Mitchum. Some say Phil was inspired by animator Eric Goldberg!

Gerald Scarfe came in to add his rock and roll edge to the project. He said “working with Disney is the closest I will get to working with Tom Cruise” and he agreed. CGI was used in his drawing of the Hydra to make it work for the movie.

They also shot tons of live-action reference footage of the muses and other elements. The actors who sat in for Hercules and Megara were even there at the panel!

Susan Egan said when she auditioned for the part it was difficult because she was seen as Belle in Beauty and the Beast Broadway. She said, “When I’m Belle I’m acting. Meg is where I live.” Ron and John evidently look at the ground when they audition voice talent so they can just focus on the voice and she thought she had done something wrong and was surprised to get the part.

They showed a clip of James Woods in the recording booth and he talked a million miles a minute and evidently came up with a lot of his good lines. “He would never shut up and just kept riffing!” Originally they wrote the part of Hades for Jack Nicholson and he came and read for the part, but it ended up going to Woods.

For the music everyone involved was ready to try something new and they felt “Gospel is a storytelling kind of music.” They showed an unreleased song called “Shooting Star” that was eventually replaced by “Go the Distance”. There was also a song called “I Cant Believe My Heart” for Megara that got cut.

Instead they had “I Wont Say I’m in Love”, which we were treated to a live version of by Susan Egan.

I’ve always appreciated Hercules for its randomness. It’s part gospel, Greek mythology, Vegas show and superhero movie. It is messy. There’s no doubt about it but it is also highly entertaining. It was so much fun to get the behind the scenes of this Disney classic and even hear a song from the film!

What is your favorite thing about Hercules? Share in the comments below!

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About Rachel Wagner

Rachel has loved animation since she was a little girl singing songs from The Little Mermaid at the top of her lungs. She currently works in social media marketing and loves to blog and vlog about Disney, Pixar and all kinds of movies in her free time. Her favorite movie is Up and she considers herself quite the Cinderella aficionado seeing every version she can get her hands on. She also loves animated TV shows like Simpsons, Gravity Falls, Star Wars Rebels and more. Follow her on twitter @smilingldsgirl
  • experiment626

    Hercules has been one of my favorite Disney movies. No Disney movie places so many current-time references in the film itself. ( “AirHerc” sandals, for example. ) Hades is definitely one of Disney’s ” Hall of Shame ” villians. The animation, both computer and drawn, is schizophrenic in it’s quality. Hercules is really saved by it’s characters and the voice actors’ performances.

    • Rachel Wagner

      I was hoping they’d announce a new bluray but no luck!

  • Sebastian

    I love this. Hercules rarely gets noticed by Disney so I bet it must have been a special experience. A un-popular opinion but I have always admired Hercules as a character. I would love if they do this again for 2019 D23. For Tarzan’s 20th anniversary.

  • David C. Matthews

    My favorite part of Hercules? James Woods as Hades, hands down! At a time when the Disney villains were sounding too much alike (to me, anyway; Jafar sounded like Scar, who sounded like Frollo), Woods brought not only a different voice but a different feel from the other villains. And those great lines! I wonder how many were written for him and how many he just improvised a la Robin Williams as Genie.

    • Rachel Wagner

      I think he improvised a lot. They showed these clips and he was riffing a million miles a minute

      • David C. Matthews

        I’d love to see those clips as part of a Blu-ray release!

  • Manuel Orozco

    My favorite part of Hercules is of course the music. I’m actually surprised the movie was developed as either a sports or superhero movie. Happy 20th anniversary Also congrats to Alan Mencken for announcing plans to bring Hercules to Broadway

  • Omg Susan Egan’s performance that I saw online was AMAZING!! My childhood just soared soooo much!! This movie was definitely one of the ones I watched a ton growing up!! So happy to see it’s anniversary celebrated! 😀

  • Brandon Kelly

    Despite that this film is not a strong Disney classic like Aladdin, Lion King, Mulan and so forth; but it has some good stuff such as James Woods as Hades and of course Meg. I Won’t Say I’m in Love in the best song in the film.