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Hercules: (Disney’s Version)

A movie review by Carl Cipra

Rating: none given

I don’t suppose there’s anyone in the club who hasn’t heard my opinion of the Hercules television series: “banal and unwatchable” (despite its oh-so-hunky stars). It may, therefore, come as a surprise to you that I really enjoyed Disney’s animated feature of the same name. In fact, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a Disney animated feature this much since The Little Mermaid. Go figure!

I certainly can’t claim that Disney’s Hercules is particularly faithful to the Greek myths. As with so many of its other animated features, “the Disney version” of the Hercules myth has been cleaned up - all of the “naughty bits” have been sanitized so as not to damage the kiddies’ delicate psyches. Thus, the “family-values censors” at Disney have deleted such things as the extramarital (born out-of-wedlock) and mixed (divine/mortal) parentage of Hercules, his indiscriminate sexual encounters with members of either sex, and the wild and murderous rages that plagued Hercules (and his family, friends, and other innocent bystanders) throughout his life. (Of course, his gruesome and agonizing death - and his resurrection - never make it to the screen either!)  Despite this, however, Disney’s Hercules retains a number of truly mythic qualities. In fact, because of their fooling around with Greek mythology, the Disney folks have actually managed to combine three mythic sub-plots into one story:

(1) First of all, Hercules (depicted here as the divine son of Zeus and Hera) is for various reasons sent to Earth to be raised by Amphitryon and Alcmene, a kindly old mortal couple. A super-powered child falls out of the sky one dark and stormy night and is found and raised by a kindly old couple of rural foster-parents?  Where have we heard that before?  Sounds like “Superman” to me!

(2) Next, in his pre-teen years, everybody thinks the young, clumsy (but oh-so-powerful) Hercules is scary and/or weird and all the other kids make fun of him. It’s only as he grows up that they discover his more-than-human status and come to view him as a hero and benefactor. In case you missed it, that’s the story of “The Ugly Duckling” put into a human context!

(3) Finally, Hades (depicted here as the evil Lord of the Underworld) tries to suborn and corrupt the up-and-coming young hero by using the feminine wiles of Megara (here depicted as “Meg,” a previously-damned femme fatale). Welcome to “Damn Yankees” - including the musical numbers, no less!  (* “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. . . ” +)

And, on top of all that, the film still manages to do some pretty heavy-duty (albeit sugar-coated) explorations of the nature of “heroism” and what it really means to be a “hero.”  Pretty nifty, I’d say!

[Side note: There actually is some basis for depicting Hercules as the son of Hera, rather than relying on the “accepted” depiction of Hercules as the result of Zeus’s seduction of Alcmene, a mortal woman. The original Greek version of his name, Heracles, means “Glory of Hera;” and some mythologists interpret this as evidence of a lost pre-patriarchal myth wherein Heracles performs all his heroic labors for the honor and glory of the Goddess, his mother Hera (whose name means “the Lady”). Interesting...although I somehow doubt the Disney writers had this in mind - they probably just didn’t want Hercules to be born a bastard!]

The film pretty much plays “fast and free” with all the other mythological references, too. Philoctetes wasn’t Hercules’ trainer, nor was he a satyr - but Danny DeVito’s “Phil” is as lovable and curmudgeonly as you could want. Hades has been reinterpreted, along more Judeo-Christian lines, into some sort of satanic Adversary - and James Woods portrays him absolutely brilliantly as some sort of immortal, schmoozing, slimeball Olympic con-man. (In fact, there’s more than a touch of Norse mythology here, with Hades playing a Loki-like role and leading the various Giant Elementals in a Ragnarok-like assault on the Gods. )  And then there are the Muses; they’ve been marvelously reinterpreted - á la the Supremes! - as a modernized (and literalized) version of the dramatic “Greek chorus. ”  What a joy!

Despite all this, however, I don’t have any “purist” gripes against the mythology in Disney’s Hercules. Perhaps a passage by one of my favorite authors sums it up nicely: “No epoch of time can claim a copyright in these immortal fables. They seem never to have been made; and certainly, so long as man exists, they can never perish; but, by their indestructibility itself, they are legitimate subjects for every age to clothe with its own garniture of manners and sentiment, and to imbue with its own morality.”  (Thus sayeth Nathaniel Hawthorne in his introduction to A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, in which he re-tells and re-interprets various Greek myths- including that of Hercules and the Garden of the Hesperides.)

So, on those grounds, why do I find Hercules-the-TV-series so objectionable but Hercules-the-animated-feature so wonderful?  I don’t know - maybe I can accept the anachronisms when they’re presented in an animated format, but they just grate on my nerves when done in live action. Or maybe it’s just because Disney’s Hercules is a “real hero,” whereas the (undeniably luscious) Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules is just an “action hero.”  Like I said, go figure.

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