Welcome to the next entry in the Rotoscopers’ Canon Countdown. Leading up to the release of Moana this November, we’re journeying through the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios, story by story. Today we celebrate a true hero of a film, the studio’s thirty-fifth release: 1997’s Hercules.
Five years after directing Aladdin (and before that The Little Mermaid and The Great Mouse Detective), John Musker and Ron Clements returned to the directors’ chairs to bring us a zany adventure and a bold departure from anything Disney would do before or after it. While no one could imitate or attempt to duplicate Robin Williams’s Genie (in fact, Genie himself even says so), Hercules takes the playful nature of what made the Genie memorable and explores giving a whole film that personality instead of one character. Hercules infuses comedy in a capacity arguably no Disney movie before it ever had. With Herc playing the straight man, every character around him is an exaggeration of a contrast of an archetype (stay with me here) of what kind of character they are. Rather than a perky, graceful princess, Meg is a cynical, sarcastic heroine. Rather than a regal, in-control villain, Hades is a raging, unhinged maniac. Phil to Hercules and Pain and Panic to Hades are far from conventional sidekicks. These explosive personalities simmering in one pot make for a wild time and an almost Looney Tunes-ish tone.
The script infuses tongue-in-cheek humor that never breaks the fourth wall but is coyly aware of its own cleverness. While the dialogue includes plenty of pop-culture bits, most of its references are broad and not relating to any one specific brand or entity. Meg stumbles upon “two rodents looking for a theme park.” Hades erupts when, just after part of his plan to kill Hercules fails, he sees Pain and Panic “wearing his merchandise.” A few nods, like the “Air Herc” shoes, scream 1997, but most are relatable enough to be funny but generic enough to still remain readable to today’s audience should they be unfamiliar with ’90s culture.
From an animation perspective, Hercules experiments with several concepts, all ranging in purpose and effectiveness. All of the gods and goddesses have a glow that absolutely pops with radiant color on the screen. The human and god characters have an angular look to them that would be severely heightened three years later for The Emperor’s New Groove and several Disney films following. The three-headed hydra monster was animated entirely in CGI, and while its success merged with this hand-drawn film is arguable (as is many 2D/CGI merges of this era), it exemplifies Disney wanting to infuse this new technology in a workable way into its traditionally animated films rather than abandon traditional animation altogether, even though we all know what that outcome would ultimately become.
Then, of course, there’s the music. In their only Disney collaboration, Alan Menken and David Zippel wrote the film’s songs. Menken was well established to the Disney fold at this point, and Zippel would go on to write Mulan‘s songs one year later with Matthew Wilder. With the gospel-inspired Muses providing a musical framework for the story throughout the entire film, Hercules bursts with memorable musical moments and one of the most versatile soundtracks in the Disney library.
Hercules leaves a unique mark on the Disney legacy. While a moderate success financially and critically, the film never found as massive of an imprint as some of its Disney Renaissance siblings. Without attaching itself to the Disney Princess brand and without exploding in the vein of a non-princess film like The Lion King, Hercules has had a fascinating journey. While the film spawned no sequels, it was followed with a same-titled television series sharing the adventures of young Hercules. For nearly a decade, Disney Cruise Line ran Hercules: The Muse-ical, a Broadway-style show that capitalized on the film’s farcical nature to deliver a hilarious romp at sea. Recently, Hades has taken up a prominent role among his 50+ Disney villain comrades, having hosting duties for a short-lived special event at Walt Disney World in 2013 and 2014 called Unleash the Villains. The undisputed most unique remnant of Hercules has to be the Hercules/Aladdin crossover of the Hercules series. Entitled Hercules and the Arabian Night, it prompts wondering what might have happened if Disney had explored a Disney Heroes franchise in the same style of its Princess line.
Even though it was quite a departure from usual Disney fare, in taking a step back, Hercules was in sync with what Disney seemed to be doing with all of its films during this time. Examining these films in order in this Canon Countdown allows us to see how drastically different each film Disney produced was from the last. The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and now Hercules all do not try to imitate each other, but instead flourish by going for something different every time.
Blake is a scriptwriter at Elevation Church, where he develops documentary shorts and creative elements as part of the film team. He graduated Appalachian State University studying Electronic Media Production and is an alumni of the Disney College Program. Blake’s favorite films are Mary Poppins, The Lion King, and Toy Story 3. You can find him on Twitter (@blake_242) and visit his blog at blakeonline.com.