Hercules was released in 1997, and is the 35th Disney Classic. It (very loosely) tells the tale of Greek mythology here Heracles, known in this movie by his Roman name, Hercules.
Greek God Zeus imprisons the Titans beneath the ocean, shortly before he and his wife Hera have a son named Hercules. They live up on Mount Olympus in a jolly, happy, sunshiney place.
Meanwhile, in the underworld lives Hades, Zeus’ brother. He is blue (literally) and plots to overthrow Zeus and rule Mount Olympus himself. He turns to the Fates for help, who tell him that in eighteen years the planets will align, enabling Hades to free the Titans and conquer Olympus, but only if Hercules doesn’t interfere.
Hades sends his minions, Pain and Panic, to turn Hercules mortal before taking him down to earth and leaving him to die. Pain and Panic are useless, however, and though they feed Hercules a special bottle of formula to turn him mortal, they don’t give him all of it, and the baby is found by farming couple Amphitryon and Alcmene, who decide to adopt him.
Fast forward a few years, and a teenaged Hercules is an outcast due to his superhuman strength. After his parents tell him they found a special necklace with him, Hercules visits the temple of Zeus to try and find some answers. Zeus’ statue comes alive and tells Hercules where he came from, telling him that he can regain his godhood by becoming a true hero. Hercules is joined by Pegasus, his forgotten winged horse from childhood, and the pair set off to find Philoctetes (Phil), a satyr who is known for training heroes.
Reluctantly, and also hilariously, Phil sets about training Hercules and when he is older they fly to Thebes. On the way they meet Megara, known as Meg for short, and Hercules rescues her from the centaur Nessus. You’d think she’d be grateful, but no. Meg is sassy, fiery and independent. She is also Hades minion, after selling her soul to him to save a lover who turned out to be unfaithful, so she’s kind of sworn off men for a bit. To say the very least.
When Hercules arrives in Thebes, no one cares about his talent, until Meg arrives and says two boys are trapped in a gorge. Hercules goes to save them, not knowing that they are pain and panic in disguise and the whole thing is a ruse set up by Hades to lure Hercules into the gorge where he summons Hydra to fight him. Hercules continually cuts off her heads but more reappear, until he causes a landslide, killing the beast. Hercules becomes known as a hero and celebrity, but Zeus says that he is not yet a true hero.
Hercules and Meg start to fall in love, although Meg would deny it for all eternity. Hades hears about this, and on the eve of his planned Mount Olympus takeover, he offers Hercules a deal: He won’t harm Meg if Hercules gives up his powers for twenty four hours. Hercules agrees and is left heartbroken when it is revealed that Meg is working for Hades.
Hades then unleashes the Titans, who immediately climb Mount Olympus and capture the gods, while a Cyclops goes to Thebes to kill the weakened Hercules. Phil inspires Hercules to fight back and kill the Cyclops, but Meg gets crushed by a pillar saving Hercules from getting hit, and he then regains his strength. Hercules and Pegasus fly to Olympus, freeing the gods and launching the Titans into space where they explode, but Meg dies before Hercules can return to her.
Meg’s soul now belongs to Hades, and Hercules breaks into the underworld, where he negotiates with Hades to free Meg from the river Styx in exchange for his own life. His willingness to sacrifice his own life restores his godhood before the life draining Styx can kill him, and he rescues Meg and punches Hades into the Styx instead.
Meg and Hercules go to Mount Olympus where Zeus and Hera welcome their son home. Hercules chooses to remain on earth with Meg though, and they return to Thebes where he is hailed as a true hero.
Disney wanted Hercules to have an open-air premiere at Pnyx Hill, in Greece, but the Greek government refused after Greek media panned the film, with one newspaper saying it was “another case of foreigners distorting our history and culture just to suit their commercial interests.” Ouch.
So, Hercules opened relatively quietly on June 27 1997. It opened at number 2 on the box office chart, and only grossed $99 million during its North American box office run. Disney blamed this on more competition. The film did receive generally positive reviews though, although they were not necessarily over effusive in their praise, generally insinuating that Hercules didn’t match up to the truly great Disney Classics, but classing it as a fun film nonetheless.
Danny DeVito was cast as Phil, and he suggested Jack Nicholson for the role of Hades. Disney offered Nicholson $500,000 for the role, but Nicholson demanded $10-15 million, plus a 50% cut on all Hades merchandise. Wow. That’s quite a difference there. Disney weren’t about to share their merch profits with anyone, and although they did offer slightly more money, it was nowhere near $10 million, so Nicholson passed.
It made no difference though, as the part went to James Woods. Disney had envisioned Hades as a slow talking villain with a deep voice. Anyone who has watched the film will know Hades is the complete opposite. Fast talking, hilariously funny and with quite a high pitch too, Woods really made that role his own.
Hercules is often criticised as being one of Disney’s weaker films, but actually, I quite enjoy it. I have very fond memories of watching it while on honeymoon (in Disneyland of course), but the first time I saw it was as a school kid with a bunch of friends. Hades had us laughing so hard we cried. In my eyes, he is one of the best ever Disney villains. He’s witty, punchy and so sarcastic it is glorious.
The music to the film is also wonderful. “Go the Distance” is a really positive, uplifting song which has proven to be an inspiration to me many times. The muses prove their worth in many vocally challenging gospel songs, and Meg has her moment too, when she declares “I Won’t Say I’m In Love,” though of course, she is. Hopelessly.
No, Hercules the movie will never take its place among the Disney gods, but if you’re looking for a couple of hours of pure escapism with some fantastic tunes, you really can’t go wrong with this film.
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