Time Has Been Kind To Disney's 'Hercules', A Flawed But Fascinating Attempt To Recapture The Magic Of 'Aladdin'

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, he discusses the 1997 film Hercules.)

One of the best qualities of Disney feature animation is that it can be timeless. Some of the studio's most charming masterpieces don't feel like cinematic time capsules; they can be experienced at any age without the audience feeling lost. But one of the biggest successes of the Disney Renaissance was a film that somehow managed to be both timeless and very much of its time: the 1992 animated comedy Aladdin. For its directors, the two men who had played a major part in ushering in the era of the Renaissance, they could follow up this success with a new film that either tried to once again blend the timeless with a modern sensibility. Or they could avoid modernity all together with their next film.

Hercules, the 1997 film directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, takes little time in emphasizing that it would be following the same route Aladdin did, to slightly diminishing returns.

A Far Off Place

Musker and Clements had not wanted to make Hercules after the success of Aladdin. With two big hits under their collective belt, the directing duo returned once more to an idea that had inflamed them with excitement: a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island set in space. Sadly, as Musker himself later recounted, neither Jeffrey Katzenberg nor Thomas Schumacher were excited by the notion of an outer-space pirate movie. The compromise that Katzenberg arrived at with the directors in 1993 was simple: if they made one more movie of his choosing, they could then make the film that became Treasure Planet. (As mentioned here before, though Jeffrey Katzenberg left the company in 1994, his presence in the Disney Renaissance lingers.)

The idea that intrigued Musker and Clements most, of those pitched during one of Disney's Gong Shows, was a retelling of the Greek myth of Hercules. (Let's pause briefly and talk a bit about the development process at Disney: plenty of projects get thrown out as ideas, and many of those were able to get to a point of being talked about publicly. Look at this brief article from the Chicago Tribune in the summer of 1992, which talks about six projects in some form of development. One became Pocahontas, while the story of Sinbad would eventually go to DreamWorks Animation with Katzenberg, in a 2003 film featuring the voice of Brad Pitt. The other four projects have never come to fruition.) 

Pitched by animator Joe Haidar, this version of Hercules would learn humility after being sought after by both sides in the Trojan War. Though the final film takes a vastly different tack with Hercules, who still learns how to be humble and the true meaning of heroism, the pitch was enough to lure Musker and Clements onboard. As Musker later said, "We thought it would be our opportunity to do a 'superhero' movie, Ron and I being comic book fans."

Decades before superhero movies were in vogue, there was another way that Musker and Clements — who are among the five credited writers on the final script, along with Donald McEnery, Bob Shaw, and Irene Mecchi — were able to frame Hercules' journey while sanding down the origins. In the Disney telling, a good deal of the tragic Greek violence of the myths is absent, as is any implication that Hercules is an illegitimate child of the god to end all gods, Zeus. As Musker said at the time of the film's release, ""In a Disney film, issues of philandering and illegitimacy are a little hard to handle." (Please note, Hercules arrived just a year after The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a film with a number of hard-to-handle topics that didn't hit quite as big as hoped.) 

A Hero’s Welcome

The Disney version instead posits Hercules as the beloved child of Zeus and Hera, who is stolen by minions of Hades himself, as the big blue bad guy wants to overthrow humanity and sees that Hercules is the only one standing in his way. Once on Earth, Hercules is turned mortal but with godlike strength, after which he tries to be a hero to the people of Thebes and eventually has to decide whether being a god is more important to him than being loved by another human.

This premise was all well and good, and leaned heavy on a modern comparison between Hercules and ultra-rich superstars like Michael Jordan. This connection, at least for the directors, was based on how Hercules' stories were documented on vases and books. In the Disney film, Hercules' popularity skyrockets and manifests in ways that are much more recognizable to the 1990s: there are credit cards inspired by him, special food and drink, and even a pair of sandals called the Air Hercules. 

It's hard not to make a connection between the stridently of-the-era jokes in Hercules with those in Aladdin. That latter film, of course, boasted the vocal presence of Robin Williams as the irrepressible Genie, a character seemingly unstuck in time who could reference anyone from Edward Everett Horton to Rodney Dangerfield, without every other character being thrown off guard. Though Hercules himself does have a coach and guide in the guise of Philoctetes, better known as Phil, the true corollary in the film to the Genie is the villain, Hades. Phil isn't as pop-culture-heavy in his dialogue, though lines like "Earth to Herc!" would be pretty anachronistic considering the setting.

I Will Find My Way

Casting Hades was the biggest headache of the film for Musker and Clements. The rest of the cast, specifically the supporting players, came together fairly quickly. As Zeus, they cast character actor Rip Torn (best known at the time for his role on HBO's The Larry Sanders Show) to offer his booming baritone. Phil was played by eternally mischievous wisecracker Danny DeVito (and animated in such a way so that he could only be played by DeVito), and other characters were played by Hal Holbrook, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Wayne Knight. Charlton Heston makes a brief appearance in the opening moments as a stentorian narrator whose introduction of Hercules is interrupted by the Muses, a quintet of African-American characters who bring gospel into the story. (More on them later.)

But Hades continued to be a problem. It was only after DeVito himself made a suggestion that Musker and Clements thought they might have the right man for the job: Jack Nicholson. Nicholson had played the Devil before in the 1987 adaptation of The Witches of Eastwick, but there were few actors in the business with more distinctive voices than this A-Lister. (It also felt fitting because one of Robin Williams' many impressions in Aladdin is of Nicholson himself.) Despite the Disney animators "rolling out the red carpet", as Nik Ranieri, who served as the supervising animator for Hades, said later, Nicholson turned down the role. Nicholson passed because of just one thing: money, and how much Disney was willing to give him. He wanted, reportedly, somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million along with half of the profits from any Hades-related merchandise. That was a no-go, so Musker and Clements were back at the drawing board.

Their attempts to find a man who could voice Hades extended far and wide. As Ranieri described, they reached out to everyone from Martin Landau to Broadway star Terrence Mann to Jerry Lewis himself. (Lewis would, later in the 1990s, star on Broadway as the Devil in a revival of "Damn Yankees".) In 1994, production continued and Musker and Clements thought they'd found their Hades: John Lithgow. Lithgow was a couple of years away from starring in the NBC sitcom "Third Rock from the Sun", but he'd become a well-known villainous type in films like Cliffhanger, and had depth as seen in The World According to Garp (co-starring Williams). 

The animators, directors, and Lithgow tried to make it work as much as they could, but in the end, his performance didn't have the same energy and liveliness they were looking for. (According to that Jim Hill article linked in the above paragraph, they felt Lithgow lacked in comic energy, an ironic thing to consider seeing as his work on "Third Rock from the Sun" would net Lithgow three Emmys for Best Actor in a Comedy Series.) A number of other actors, including Kevin Spacey, Ron Silver, and Phil Hartman, read for the role. But finally, in the fall of 1995, Musker and Clements reached out to James Woods to see if he'd take on the part of the Devil incarnate.

One Last Hope

James Woods, by the mid-1990s, had established himself as a) an intense screen presence and b) not the kind of actor you'd usually see in family films. He'd worked with David Cronenberg, Oliver Stone, and Martin Scorsese, playing tough-as-nails journalists, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and more non-family-friendly characters. Though Hercules came just a year after the very dark Disney take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, its vision of Hades, as inspired by a comment Woods himself made, was less terrifying that Judge Claude Frollo. Yes, this Hades was still a nasty piece of work, but in the way that a studio executive is.

Woods' interpretation of Hades is still perhaps the best part of Hercules. (In the year 2019, depending on your political opinions, this may jibe quite strongly with the current state of James Woods' public persona. Such is life.) Disney's version of Hades isn't exactly unstuck in time like the Genie is – the whole film exists in a weird anachronistic place where characters spout off one-liners like they're on an HBO sitcom with slightly less profanity. (When Paul Shaffer, as Hermes, glibly states that the party he's attending is the biggest lovefest "since Narcissus discovered himself", it feels like a statement of purpose for the whole film's sense of humor.)

But when we see Hades, he's both smarter than everyone else in the room and a lot hipper. This Hades is an eternal schmoozer; when he meets the adult Hercules up close and personal, he puts on the biggest car-salesman (or Hollywood-agent) like spectacle. "I've got this deal in the works, call it a real estate venture", he starts, before closing his pitch to have Hercules bow out of the climactic battle thusly: "We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy, what do you say? Come on."

Hades didn't bust out into a ton of characters, though Woods did do some improvising that made it so Ranieri and the other animators had to keep up with his mile-a-minute style of speech. But that style of speech, and the mixture of intelligence and frustration in Woods' voice, makes Hades a truly special villain even if — unlike a few other villains in the Renaissance — he doesn't get a song of his own. It's enough to watch Hades stew, and hear it in Woods' voice, when he's dealing with his moronic, demonic henchmen Pain and Panic, or the trio of elderly Fates. (When they keep reminding him that they know what he's asking about, because they know everything, he all but yells "I know you know! I got it. I got the concept." It's all in the delivery.) And Woods' take on Hades still enables him to be terrifyingly angry, as when he sees that Pain and Panic are drinking Hercules-branded cups and wearing his shoes, or as he puts it: "...You...are wearing...his merchandise?!?"

That’s Ancient History

The basic story of Hercules is not, perhaps, its strongest suit. You don't have to look too hard to see similarities between the 1997 film and other Disney animated efforts in one characterization or story beat. The protagonist being separated from their parents is a hallmark of Disney storytelling, though it's kind of remarkable that Hercules does have both his mother and father (even if he's nowhere near them). And the specifics of Hercules' separation — as well as the threat he poses to Hades only once he's grown up — feel somewhat similar to that of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty

Aside from Woods' performance, where Hercules stands out among its peers is largely in its distinctive animation design. Musker and Clements, early on in the development process for the film, were inspired to reach out to British animator Gerald Scarfe based on an old magazine cover he'd done of The Beatles. Scarfe was not, admittedly, the obvious choice to work on a Disney film due to his satirical illustrations of Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and other American politicos. But inexplicable as it may have been, Scarfe's initial handful of drawings for a story of Hercules ended up landing him the job of the film's production designer.

As the directors of the film explained to the Los Angeles Times, "We realized there was a direct correlation between Gerald's style and the Greek vase painting style, a combination of power and elegance, very bold and dynamic but also decorative." The resulting effort is a film that both looks of a piece with the rest of the Disney Renaissance, but also looks unique and singular. Hades, as a character, seems apt as a Disney villain, just as Hercules looks roughly appropriate as a beefy Disney hero. But the sharp lines that constitute their facial and physical designs stand out as Scarfe originals, as do the various monsters of Greek myth that populate the world of the film.

The most memorable of those monsters is the one who inadvertently helps Hercules prove his worth to the skeptical citizens of Thebes: the multi-headed Hydra. Though Scarfe did provide basis drawings for the Hydra, the setpiece featuring the monster is another example of Disney's hand-drawn animated features introducing more computer-animated wizardry into the mix. In the downtime between the first and second feature films from Pixar, Disney was bringing more 3-D animation into its features. In just seven years, the studio had gone from an opening-credits sequence in the Australian Outback being computerized in The Rescuers Down Under, to a hero fending off an infinitely-headed bad guy in a major setpiece. 

More than 20 years later, the Hydra sequence is memorable more for the sideline commentary from Hades than it is for the blend of hand-drawn and computer animation. Unlike the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral or the stampeding wildebeest of recent memory, the Hydra is more obviously a computerized creation (even with Scarfe's distinctive designs pushing it into being) and thus somewhat out of place. The necessity of including computer animation is understandable; it's also more noticeable.

A Prize for Rotten Judgment

Hercules himself is charming enough, as voiced by Tate Donovan (of TV's Damages and Friends, among other credits). But Hercules suffers the same fate as the title character of Aladdin: we're told how special he is without the character always proving it himself. (At least here, we get plenty of visual proof of how strong Hercules is, whereas Aladdin just was a diamond in the rough, because the story demanded it.) The key difference is that, where Jasmine was also a fairly uninteresting character, the same isn't true of Hercules' female counterpart and love interest, Megara, voiced by Susan Egan.

Egan nearly didn't get the chance to play Meg, the young woman who falls in love with Hercules even as she's being forced to serve as bait for our hero by the demonic Hades. "Alan Menken initially blocked me", Egan once recounted in an interview. Egan was no stranger to the world of Disney and music by the point of the film's release: she originated the role of Belle in the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast. But it was that very role that made Menken wary of Egan as the right woman to play the feistier, deadpan Meg. She did eventually get Menken to relent, and auditioned to play a character inspired by screwball-comedy leads like Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve

Meg is a vastly more interesting character than Hercules, or "Wonder Boy" as she calls him, in part because Egan's performance is brimming with personality where Donovan (through no fault of his own — he's fine) is given a less multi-dimensional character to play. Hercules could be brooding, or frustrated that he's gained fame without really understanding what it means to be a hero, but he often seems like an overgrown child. Meg, at least, is full of creative angles and unexpected byways.

This Scene Won’t Play

One of those byways comes courtesy of the other element that's all but demanded of a Disney animated film, at least circa the late-1990s: songs. Meg's isn't a soppy ballad, though it nearly was. As Egan mentioned, Menken and lyricist David Zippel had another song for Meg in mind, called "I Can't Believe My Heart". Only after Ken Duncan, Meg's supervising animator, pointed out that the song didn't fit with the character or her sharp-edged personality did the composer and lyricist come up with "I Won't Say (I'm In Love)", which both fits a slower-paced style but feels decidedly more strident and Meg-like.

The music, in general, in Hercules is both charming and also not the strongest of the Renaissance era. It marks an important milestone in the era, though: this was the last time that Alan Menken served as composer during the 90s. (Since Hercules, Menken has served as composer for just three Disney animated films: Home on the Range, Tangled, and Ralph Breaks the Internet.) Stephen Schwartz was no longer part of the songwriting team (arguably to the film's detriment), because he was pushed out due to his presence on the 1998 DreamWorks animated film The Prince of Egypt, according to the biography Defying Gravity. In his place, Disney hired the Tony-Award-winning lyricist David Zippel onto the project.

The result of this one-time cinematic partnership (Menken and Zippel had worked before on the Broadway musical Diamonds) is not the strongest overall set of Disney songs. There's the "I Want"-style number in the form of "Go the Distance", but Hercules' goal to figure out where in life he belongs ends up sounding a bit generic, in spite of the earnest performance from Roger Bart, who provides the young hero's singing voice. And just as Robin Williams got a show-stopping musical number in Aladdin, Danny DeVito gets an ostensible show-stopper here with "One Last Hope", but DeVito's raspy voice doesn't lead to a musically pleasing number.

The true standouts are the Muses, voiced and sung by Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman, and Vaneese Y. Thomas. They get a handful of numbers, like "Zero to Hero" and "A Star is Born", that feel of a piece (intentionally or not) with the musical that inspired Disney to hire Alan Menken and his songwriting partner Howard Ashman back in the 1980s, Little Shop of Horrors. The songs hit the right notes (pun intended) of humor and joy, as the characters never feel like they're singing the same gospel-tinged piece. It's about as good as late-era Renaissance Disney music gets, where a few of the other songs feel a bit too familiar after years of familiar ballads and gut-busting show-stoppers.

A Time for Pulling Out the Stops

If there's any real problem with Hercules, which is a perfectly charming, snappy film, it's that unavoidable fact: if this was the first film of the Renaissance, or had it arrived before Aladdin, it might have felt fresher and funnier. Instead, by arriving after so many of the undeniable, unbeatable classics of the era, Hercules almost feels like leftovers. Disney, unsurprisingly, spared no expense in promoting the film in the summer of 1997. Whatever else was the case, the success of the earlier Renaissance films had ensured that Disney would all but shut down Times Square to make sure the world knew about its upcoming release. 

Marketing didn't help this time, though. Hercules was barely outgrossed by the previous year's animated film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The hunky hero's film made just $99 million at the box office; in its first weekend, it was outgrossed by the John Woo action film Face/Off. Reviews were decent, even as some critics couldn't get behind the Gerald Scarfe-inspired animation, being so different from previous Disney films. The late Gene Siskel mused on "how soft and cheap" it looked. Desson Howe of the Washington Post deemed the animation "some of the worst I've ever cringed through". (These criticisms grow more mystifying as time passes. Though the animation is quirky, and perhaps not as rigorously detailed as that in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it's often unforgettably sharp and striking.)

Time has largely been kind to Hercules, removed from any context. Coming right after the daring and risky The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the film — while full of plenty of dark humor, such as a riff on the McDonald's slogan as we see that Hades' Underworld serves billions of...guests — does feel like a bit of a qualitative step down, or at least an affirmation that the studio wouldn't get that adult moving forward. But even though it's an imperfect animated film, Hercules is, like the animation style that informed its design, sharp-edged and unexpected, and easy to look past without giving it its fair due.

***

Next Time: Looking at our reflection with Mulan.