Hercules Revisited

(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.

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