Hercules is about the famed mythological hero Ἡρακλῆς, or Heracles, as his name was in the Greek myth. Hercules was his name in the Roman myth, but the film is set in Ancient Greece, as evidenced by his father being Zeus and Hera and them living on Mount Olympus. Although in the myth, Heracles is the son of Zeus and Alcmene, but I don’t think that Disney would imply that Zeus slept around. So, instead we have Zeus and Hera, the happy monogamous couple.
The film starts off with a narrator (Charlton Heston) who doesn’t invoke the Muses, but is mostly interrupted by them. They tell us about how the world was in chaos because of titans and Zeus came along and locked the titans up. We then go to Mount Olympus, where Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar) are celebrating the birth of Hercules. Hades (James Woods) shows up and shows how unhappy he is that Zeus has another son. Hades was given the underworld in Disney’s film, while in mythology, Hades chose the underworld when him, Zeus, and Posidon drew for their realms. Hades returns to the underworld to learn from the Fates (Amanda Plummer, Carole Shelley, Paddi Edwards) that in 18 years, the cosmos will align to show him where the titans are hidden. If the titans are released, he’ll be able to overthrow Zeus. But if Hercules fights, he won’t be able to succeed. Hades then sends Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer) to kill Hercules. They kidnap him and take him to Earth where they fail to kill him and only turn him mortal. He is then discovered by Amphitryon (Hal Holbrook) and Alcmene (Barbara Barrie), who raise him as their own.
Fast forward several years and Hercules is now a teenager (Josh Keaton, singing voice by Roger Bart) that is viewed as a freak because of his god-like strength. Tired of being an outcast, he sets out for the
Oracle at Delphi local temple of Zeus, where he prays and finds out that he is the son of Zeus and Hera. He is then reunited with Pegasus and told to find Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), who is not son of King Poeas and is a satyr living by himself on an island. Phil reluctantly agrees to train Hercules in order for him to become a hero and hopefully gain his place amongst the gods. After the training completes, Phil, Pegasus, and Hercules (now voiced by Tate Donovan) head towards Thebes, which Phil says has “a million troubles”*, but they first make a detour when they hear a woman shrieking. They go to land where they find Megara (Susan Egan) in the clutches of Nessus (Jim Cummings).
In the myth, Megara was Heracles’ first wife, the daughter of King Creon of Thebes, but not the King Creon of Thebes whose sister married her son. In Euripedes’ Heracles, the titular character later goes and kills his children and Megara after Hera strikes him with madness. The film having Megara in the clutches of Nessus is closer to Heracles killing Nessus, who attempted to rape his third rife, Deianira, after offering to help her across a river. (This incident later sets up Heracles death, but we won’t get into that.) Hercules defeats Nessus, is smitten with Megara, nicknamed “Meg,” and then leaves for Thebes. The viewer then sees that Megara is working with Hades and was trying to get Nessus on his side for the “uprising.” This is also when Hades finds out that Pain and Panic were not successful in killing Hercules as a child.
Upon entering Thebes, a city in need of a hero, he is dismissed for not having done anything heroic before. Then some children are trapped and he saves them, only to bring about the Hydra, which was the second of his labours, done to repay for his crime of killing his children. He defeats the Hydra and the crowd goes crazy. Hercules is a celebrity. Women are fawning over him while there’s a suspicious lack of men going gaga and wanting to tear his clothes in this film. One day, he decides to take a break and hang out with Megara, which is part of Hades plot to bring Hercules down. After the two are separated by Phil and Pegasus, Megara admits that she loves him and Hades decides to use this continue his evil plot. He uses her as a bartering chip to get Hercules to give up his strength for a day in order for him to not get in the way. The stars/planets are aligned and the titans are released†. While Hercules is being tossed around by a cyclops, Megara and Phil come, only she is injured when a column falls on her. His strength returns and he goes to Mount Olympus to save the gods. After defeating the titans, he goes to return to Meg, who is dead. He goes to the Underworld to save her and becomes a god while in what is either Lethe or Styx. He sends Hades down to Lethe/Styx and returns Meg’s soul to her body, and goes up to Olympus where he is welcomed, but decides to not be a god so he can stay with Megara.
Hercules is a very silly and unabashedly anachronistic film. While Hunchback of Notre Dame had anachronisms provided by the gargoyles and Pocahontas didn’t have that many anachronisms, Hercules is filled with them. (AirHercs, anyone?) In addition to these anachronisms, the characters make comments that would fit if the film was set in Ancient Rome rather than Ancient Greece, such as the children trapped under the large rock yelling, “Someone call IXII,” which is still clever, although not appropriate for Ancient Greece since those are Roman numerals. Rather than tell this sad, sweeping story like Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas set out to do, Hercules feels like the guy that just wants to have fun.
Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules is heavily cleaned up to make the film family-friendly. We don’t have characters cheating on their wives, killing their children, or marrying more than once. We don’t even see any men fawning over Hercules and in Plutarch’s Eroticos it’s implied that Heracles male lovers were so abundant that it’s impossible to list them all. But if Hercules had the elements that make it a bit more authentic, it would never be family-friendly.
And as it is, Hercules is a lot of fun. While it has inaccuracies that a person familiar with Ancient Greece and its mythology would recognize, it doesn’t bring down the film. The benefit that Hercules has is that it is filled with so many anachronisms for the sake of pop culture references and gags that it feels like a lighter film than Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It manages to have a wise-cracking villain that still manages to have a menacing aspect to himself. Hades manages to provide comic relief and have a lot of the funnier lines in the film, but he can still be taken seriously as a villain. The character comments about throwing everything he has at Hercules because his minions goofed up and we witness this. He is not below using other characters in an attempt to finally get his evil plan to work. Hades isn’t as menacing as some other Disney villains because of his wise-cracking, somewhat laid-back attitude, but his constant pursuit of his goal does help make him a bit terrifying.
But one of the benefits of Hercules‘ fun, silly tone is that the Cute Little Animal Characters don’t detract from the film. In fact, Pegasus and possibly Phil serve as the Cute Little Animal Characters in the film and the film as it is written would simply not work without them. They’re characters that I don’t roll my eyes at because of their essential nature to the film.
Alan Menken and David Zippel haven’t created an amazing score and songs for this film, but they’re memorable. I even find them popping into my head at odd moments. And the parts of the score that riff off of the film’s theme, “Go the Distance,” work perfectly as Hercules either is triumphant or is making an important decision.
So while Hercules is a very flawed film, it’s a fun, enjoyable film that only seems to be just that. And even the errors in the film are able to be overlooked because everything in the world of the film makes sense. If anything Hercules is a flawed film that embraces its flaws to make it work.
*Oh, those Thebans and their curses, incest, self-mutilation, suicide, murder…
†Note: No Kraken were seen.