Personal Overview: I’d been a big fan of Greek and Roman mythology for years. I couldn’t work out why it took Disney this long to actually base one of their animated features on an element of that mythology.
As the character of Hercules was already being sent up in the TV series starring Kevin Sorbo, which was probably at it’s peak when this film came out, he was ripe for the Disney treatment.
This one was definitely aimed more at a younger audience than Disney’s releases just prior to it. He was largely portrayed as a confused teenager who struggled to deal with his differences and just wanted to make both sets of parents (the mortal ones who adopted him and his real parents Zeus and Hera, although we hardly saw Hera and I don’t think she was ever referenced by name) proud of him. They threw in a love story with Megara, who was in thrall to Hades.
Whether intentional or not there are a bunch of references in this that made me think of the stories of Superman (it did make me wonder if Siegel and Shuster drew on this when they created the idea), Spiderman and some of it even recalled Rocky.
The story was actually fairly flimsy and just followed standard Disney protocol. The music, mostly sung by the Muses, with the Muses themselves being portrayed as a Motownish type group, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Destiny’s Child album.
Hero/es: Hercules of course. Megara sort of vacillates between being the temptress for her debt to Hades and letting her heart rule her head and supporting Hercules. I’d put Hercules winged horse Pegasus in there as well.
Villain/s: that’s James Woods’ as Hades. Woods did an excellent job here and he had the perfect voice. He managed to make the lord of the underworld a mixture of scary, incompetent and amusing. In some ways he shared a bit with Maleficent and Scar. He was annoyed at not being even invited to Hercules coming out and then realized that to get control of Olympus he’d need to get Hercules out of the way. On a lesser scale his two incompetent assistants: Pain and Panic, were also villains, but they were there more for comedy relief. Their masquerading as a My Little Pony to entice Hercules’ magical steed Pegasus away was a highlight.
Cuteness Factor: the baby Hercules and the baby Pegasus are almost too cute for words. In fact Pegasus never loses the Cuteness Factor. The other one in this was one of their star casting with Danny DeVito channeling Burgess Meredith to play the legendary satyr hero trainer Philoctetes.
Animation: Disney started to experiment here. Hercules is largely a Greek legend (although Disney did go with the better known Roman spelling of the name, rather than the Greek Heracles), so they gave the artwork, especially the look of many of the characters a rather classical Greek feel about them. It works especially effectively on the Muses who look like the paintings on the sides of Greek vases. It was a clever idea, although I think it was mostly lost on the audiences.
Final Words: it’s an uneven treatment and I’m not sure too many people appreciated the rather buffoonish portrayal of Zeus. It didn’t do as much business as the previous releases, I think this was in part because it was aimed and marketed at a younger audience and there was a bit of a flow on from the less than stellar Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I actually confess I found the animated series, which detailed Hercules as a teenager, fairly entertaining.