Production started on Hercules as early as 1994 and lasted through 1997. I'm guessing that the studio wanted to tackle something a little different. Disney in the past has generally gone with stories based on books or fairy tales, but hadn't delved into any specific mythology, unless you count the "Pastoral" segment of Fantasia. So, this was a little bit of a change for Disney. Disney realized early on that when people thought of Greek Mythology, they generally thought of academic books and a bunch of other boring stuff that wouldn't interest most people. So, they gave the story their own spin, made it a little more contemporary and made the characters more Americanized and relateable. No cartoon about gods philandering about or being extremely devious (unless we're talking about Hades). Instead Disney watered down Greek Mythology to make it acceptable for children, because if you've read Greek Mythology, then you know some of the stories are pretty messed up. Another thing that makes this movie different from any other Disney film is the animation style. To get a unique style for the movie, Disney hired Gerald Scarfe to be their animation adviser. Scarfe is best known for his artwork in Pink Flyod's The Wall. With his direction and further inspiration from Greek artwork and architecture, the movie has a distinct look that sets it apart from all the others.
In terms of character designs and mannerisms, some artists had a little bit of trouble. Andreas Deja, who was the primary animator for Scar, Gaston, and Jafar decided that he would this time tackle a protagonist instead of a antagonist. He found the task hard but got a lot of help from watching Tate Donovan (the voice of adult Hercules) act out his lines. Meg's design and mannerisms were based off a 40's screwball comedienne and now that I've learned that, I can really see it in the character. Hades character was meant to be a very menacing, slow talking villain, but once James Wood auditioned, they decided to change the character to a easy to anger, fast talking Hollywood agent/used car salesman sort of villain. I'm glad they made the change, because Hades is one of my favorite villains because of his demeanor. And finally, the character of Phil was based off of Grumpy from Snow White and Bacchus from Fantasia.
Half the fun of this movie is the voice cast. Notable voices include some that I already mentioned like Tate Donovan (Love Potion No. 9) as the voice of the adult Hercules and James Woods (Casino) as god of the underworld, Hades. Woods incidentally pulled a Robin Williams and ended up ad-libbing almost all of his lines. Woods must of really liked the role, because he has basically promised Disney that whenever they need him to reprise his role as Hades, he'll do it. And he has, voicing him in the animated series and in the Kingdom Hearts video games. Other voice talents included Danny DeVito (Big Fish, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as Philoctetes, Susan Egan (Spirited Away) as Megara, Rip Torn (Men In Black) as Zeus, Bobcat Goldthwait (Police Academy 2,3,4) as Pain, Matt Frewer (50/50) as Panic, Wayne Knight (Seinfeld, Jurassic Park) as Demetrius, Hal Holbrook (All The President's Men) as Amphitryon, Paul Shaffer (Late Show with David Letterman) as Hermes, and the late, great, Charlston Heston (Planet of the Apes, Ben-Hur) as the narrator. This is probably the only chance you'll get to hear Heston say: "You go girls." I'm not sure though, he may have also said it in The Ten Commandments. Needless to say, the movie as an all-star cast, from old stars like Holbrook and Heston, to newer ones like Donovan and DeVito (not new anymore). Everyone is perfect for the roles, too. It would literally blow my mind if they had someone else voice Hades in something Hercules related. I'm also glad they got Tate Donovan to do the voice of Hercules in the animated series.
In Greek Mythology, Hercules, or Heracles, or Herakles, is the son of Zeus and a mortal named Alcmene. That is the reason he is a demi-god, not because he was poisoned by Hades. Zeus however was married to Hera at the time, and you can imagine that Hera was pretty pissed. Hera was also pretty mad when she found out that Zeus had been using Hera to breast feed Hercules while she was asleep. The breast feeding allowed Hercules to become partially immortal and gave him super human strength. Hera decided to hold a grudge against Hercules for the rest of his partially immortal life and eventually sent him into a blind frenzy that caused him to murder his wife and kids. After he became sane again he sought the Oracle of Delphi to make atonement for what he had done. The Oracle told Hercules that he must serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae. Eurystheus in turn gave him the tasks known as the Labors of Hercules. There were twelve in all, and if you watch or listen closely during the movie, Hercules completes five of the tasks while two more are mentioned by Phil when Hercules is posing. The tasks he completes in the film are: Kill the Nemean Lion, destroy the Lernaean Hydra, trap the Erymanthian Boar, butcher the Stymphalian Birds, and capture Cerberus. The two Phil mentions are cleaning the Augean Stables and retreiving the Gold Girdle from "some Amazons."
Interestingly enough, the battle between Hercules and the centaur, Nessus, in the movie is almost the same story as how he saved his second wife, Deianeira. Nessus offers to ferry them across a river, though one at a time. Nessus uses this ploy to kidnap Deianeira. When Hercules sees what's going on, he shoots Nessus with an arrow poisoned with Hydra blood. Before Nessus dies, he tells Deianeira to take some of his blood, for it was a very powerful medicine. He claimed that if Hercules ever became unfaithful, that his blood would make him fall in love with her again. She believes her would be kidnapper for some reason and takes some of his blood. Years later, Deianeira started to get the inkling that Hercules had fallen in love with another, so she covered his robe with Nessus' blood and sent a servant to give the robe to Hercules. The servant spilled some of the blood on the floor and when the sun rays hit the blood, it started to burn. Deianeira knew something was up so she sent someone to stop the first servant. It was too late however, as Hercules had already put on the robe. The blood, still poisoned by the Hydra's blood made the robe burn into Hercules flesh. He threw himself into water to quell the burning but it only made it worse. He ripped the robe off himself and took most of his internal organs with it. Furious, he threw the first servant into the sea. He then told his good friend Philoctetes to build him a pyre on the mountain of Oata. He was then burned to death on the pyre and made into a god by Zeus. Deianeira committed suicide after she found out what she had done. Great ending, right? Sanitation was definitely needed. I don't think it would have been wise of Disney to show Hercules ripping his own organs out.
Disney attempted to have Hercules premiere at Pynx Hill in Greece, but the government forbid it. In fact Greece basically considered the whole thing an insult due to the fact that it wasn't even close to the real myth. My opinion: who the hell cares? Did they really expect Disney to do a faithful adaption of Hercules' life? The story is super violent and inappropriate for children! Yes, they Americanized the hell out of it, but why did the Greek government have to be such sticks in the mud? Hercules got its wide release on June 27th, 1997. The movie did not do that well in comparison to the other Disney movies released during the Renaissance. In fact, it did the worst of all save for The Rescuers Down Under. I literally have no idea how that is possible. How could people not want to see this movie?! It's hip, it's got a good mixture of R&B/Soul music with a classical soundtrack, it's funny, and it's got the battle with the hydra! That freaked me out as a kid but it was still freaking cool! Disney blamed it on competition, which I guess could have been it. Face/Off, Men in Black, Contact, and George of the Jungle all came out around the same time and could have stolen a few people. But here is the question of the day: Does having competition cause your movie not to get seen? If I want to see a movie, I see it, no matter how many other movies are out. And besides George of the Jungle, it's the only children's movie that was out at the time. I don't know, maybe people decided to just spend their money on Men in Black. Hercules only grossed $99 million domestically, while earning $252 million in all, so it did much better overseas. Critical reviews were positive to mixed. Siskel and Ebert gave it one thumb up, Ebert liking it and Siskel not. It has an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Things you may have missed/interesting tid-bits:
- When Hercules hits his head on the mast of the Argo, Phil tells him to watch it. Jason, captain of the Argo, was killed when the mast struck his head.
- Hermes delivers flowers to Hera, a nod to FTD Florists whose registered trademark is a picture of Hermes.
- The Spice Girls were considered for the parts of the muses.
- The first film since Oliver and Company where the villain doesn't sing.
- "Air Herc" is a parody of Nike/Air Jordans. Nike was the Greek goddess who personified triumph.
- Phil's line, "I'm walking here!" after he almost gets hit by a chariot is a direct reference to the movie Midnight Cowboy.
- During "Zero to Hero," when Hercules flies on top of Pegasus in front of star constellations, one is of Marilyn Monroe doing her famous scene from The Seven Year Itch.
- Thebes is meant to be a Greek version of New York City, even so far as calling it "The Big Olive."
- During Meg's song, "I Won't Say I'm in Love," the muses sing while appearing as marble busts. The way they are arranged, they match the singing marble busts from The Haunted Mansion at Disney World/Land.
- Ricky Martin does the voice of Hercules in the Spanish version.
- Pain and Panic are named for two of the four henchmen of Ares, Phobos and Deimos. The names roughly translate into Pain and Panic. Phobos and Deimos are also the two moons of Mars, Mars being the Roman name for Ares.
- When Pain and Panic are pretending to be the kids trapped beneath the rock, one shouts, "Someone call IX-I-I, otherwise known as 9-1-1 in Roman Numerals.
- Paul Shaffer, who is best known as the keyboard playing band leader on Late Night with David Letterman, voices Hermes, who at the end of the film is seen playing the keyboard.
- And finally, Scar from The Lion King makes an appearance as the lion's skin that Hercules is wearing when he is posing for a painting.
I can't say enough on why I love this movie. From the epic battle with the hydra, to the emotional ending, to the complicated relationships, this movie has everything. This movie shows us what it means to be a true hero, and that is to be willing to risk/give up your life in order to save someone you care about. In other words, it takes sacrifice. While many might consider themselves hero's, they might not be, just for the simple fact that they put themselves before others. Please watch this movie again if you haven't in a while. You won't be disappointed.