Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Hercules

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Hercules

Year: 1997

Source materials : The Greek legend of Heracles 1

Budget: $85 million

Box office: $252.7 million

Plot:

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The muses tell the story of Zeus imprisoning the Titans. Zeus and Hera, have a son named Hercules, and Zeus’ jealous brother Hades plots to overthrow the gods and rule Mount Olympus. Consulting the Fates, Hades learns that the planets will align in eighteen years, which will allow him to locate and free the Titans. However, if Hercules joins the fight, Hades will fail.

Hades sends his underlings Pain and Panic to kill Hercules. They kidnap the infant and feed him a formula that turns him mortal, but they are interrupted before the last drop is consumed, allowing Hercules to retain his superhuman strength. The attack him in the form of snakes, but Hercules defeats them. He is found and adopted by the farmers Amphitryon and Alcmene.

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Later, teenage Hercules is an outcast due to his strength and inability to control it. He wonders where he came from. His foster parents reveal a necklace they found him with, and Hercules sets off to the temple of Zeus for answers.

Hercules

The statue of Zeus comes to life and reveals that he is Hercules’ father, also telling him that he can regain his godhood and enter Olympus by becoming a “true hero”. He reintroduces him to the flying horse Pegasus Zeus sends Hercules to find the satyr Philoctetes, a trainer of heroes who has retired due to a number of disappointments. Phil reluctantly agrees and trains Hercules until adulthood.

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They head for Thebes. On the way, they run into the centaur Nessus, who has captured a young woman named Megara. Hercules defeats Nessus and is attracted to Meg, who is revealed to be Hades’ minion, having sold her soul to save an unfaithful lover.

Arriving in Thebes, Meg tells him that two boys are trapped in a gorge. Hercules saves them, but they are Pain and Panic in disguise, in rescuing them, he inadvertently frees the Hydra. Every time Hercules cuts off a head, more grow in its place. Hercules finally kills the monster by causing a landslide.

Hercules becomes a hero and a celebrity, but Zeus tells Hercules he is not yet a true hero. Hades enlists Meg to find out Hercules’ weakness, and discovers that his weakness is his feelings for Meg On the eve of the alignment, Hades offers a deal: Hercules gives up his powers for twenty-four hours and Meg will be unharmed. After accepting the deal, Hades reveals that Meg is working for him.

When the planets align, Hades unleashes the Titans, who attack Olympus and capture the gods. A cyclops attacks Thebes, and Phil inspires Hercules to fight. Meg is crushed by a falling pillar, saving Hercules from it, and breaking Hades’ bargain that Meg would come to no harm, allowing Hercules to regain his strength. Hercules and Pegasus fly to Olympus where they free the gods, save Zeus, and vanquish the Titans, though Meg dies before he returns to her.

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Hercules descends into the Underworld and negotiates with Hades to free Meg from the Styx in exchange for his own life. His willingness to sacrifice his life restores his immortality before the Styx can kill him. He rescues Meg and punches Hades into the Styx.

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Meg and Hercules are summoned to Olympus, where Zeus and Hera welcome their son home. Hercules chooses to remain on Earth with Meg. Zeus creates a picture of Hercules in the stars commemorating his heroism.

Background: Originally, an idea was pitched at Disney to do an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, but production was abandoned when it was deemed too long and lacked central characters. Animator Joe Haidar delivered a brief outline set during the Trojan War where both sides seek Hercules for their secret weapon.

In November 1992, fresh off Aladdin, directors Ron Clements and John Musker pitched their idea for Treasure Planet. Jeffrey Katzenberg 2 disapproved of the project, but struck a deal with the directors to produce another commercially viable film before he would green-light Treasure Planet. They were notified of Haidar’s pitch for a Hercules feature.

“We thought it would be our opportunity to do a “superhero” movie… Ron and I being comic book fans. The studio liked us moving onto that project and so we did [Hercules].” -John Musker

They sought inspiration from classic screwball comedy films directed by Preston Sturges and Frank Capra with Hercules modeled after Jimmy Stewart and Meg on Barbara Stanwyck. They consulted the works of Thomas Bullfinch, Edith Hamilton, Robert Graves, and other interpreters of Greek mythology until they reached the conclusion to not portray the traditional story of Hercules.

“…illegitimacy would be difficult subject matter for a Disney movie. So we thought of different ways he could be half-man and half-god. We moved more toward making Hades the villain instead of Hera. The Underworld seemed like such a fascinating, dark images; the contrast with Olympus seemed to have all kinds of visual possibilities.” – Musker

They also got the idea of Hercules like an athlete or contemporary celebrity, compsring him to Michael Jordan. Comedy writers Don McEnery and Bob Shaw were hired, and the draft was concurrently rewritten by Irene Mecchi.

Changes from the Source Material:

M13.1Hydra

I had to dig into my Edith Hamilton for this one. All the Greek myths come from the oral tradition and therefore have variations, however there are several aspects of the Heracles myth that are changed for the film. Heracles was the son of the affair Zeus had with Alcmene. Zeus made love to her after disguising himself as her husband, Amphitryon. Hera was therefore always hated him.

Megara is the daughter of King Creon of Thebes. In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles killed his children by Megara. 3 He was directed by the Oracle of Delphi to serve King Eurystheus, who decided to give Heracles twelve labours:

  • Slay the Nemean Lion.
  • Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra. 4
  • Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis.
  • Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
  • Clean the Augean stables in a single day.
  • Slay the Stymphalian Birds.
  • Capture the Cretan Bull.
  • Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
  • Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
  • Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon.
  • Steal the apples of the Hesperides 5
  • Capture and bring back Cerberus.

Hercules was also a member of Jason’s Argonauts 6 and had many other adventures.

Philoctetes was not a saytr, but a Greek Prince who was one of Helen’s suitors. He was exiled to an island for the majority of the Trojan War.

Pegasus wasn’t created by Zeus. He sprung from the blood of the gorgan Medusa and had adventures with Belaphrates.

There are nine muses, not five.

Animation: British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe was recruited as production designer and produced over seven hundred visualization designs of the characters. Research trips to Greece and Turkey provided inspiration for the background designs. Animation for the film was done in California and Paris.

Supervising animator Andreas Deja described Hercules as “…not a smart aleck, not streetwise, he’s just a naive kid trapped in a big body”.

Producer Alice Dewey mentioned that Hades “was supposed to talk in a slow and be menacing in a quiet, spooky way”, but thought that James Woods’ manner of speaking “a mile a minute” would be a “great take” for a villain. Woods did a lot of ad-libbing in his recordings, especially in Hades’ dialogues with Megara. Nik Ranieri, the supervising animator for Hades, mentioned that the character was “based on a Hollywood agent, a car salesman type”, and that a lot came from James Woods’ ad-libbed dialogue. He went on to say that the hardest part in animating Hades was that he talks too much and too fast, so much so that “it took [him] two weeks to animate a one-second scene”.

Animator Eric Goldberg took inspiration from Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bacchus in Fantasia in terms of their curmudgeonly personality and facial structure.

Scarfe provided preliminary drawings for the Hydra, and the computer animation team was headed by Roger Gould. A clay model was created and the dimensions were rendered into a wire-frame model. 7

Songs:

  • “The Gospel Truth”
  • “Go the Distance” 8
  • “One Last Hope”
  • “Zero to Hero”
  • “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)”
  • “A Star Is Born”

All lyrics written by David Zippel; 9 all music composed by Alan Menken. The idea to incorporate gospel music for the songs was suggested by co-screenwriter and co-director John Musker.

“Gospel is a storytelling kind of music. It can be exhilarating, especially when it gets everybody on their feet. We were looking for a modern equivalent for the Greek references and this style of music seemed to be entertaining and a real departure at the same time.” 10

During production, Meg was originally given a ballad titled “I Can’t Believe My Heart”, but Ken Duncan, the supervising animator of Meg, pointed out the song was out of character for Meg. Menken and Zippel would later compose “I Won’t Say I’m In Love” instead.

Voice Cast:

Tate Donovan as Hercules. 11 He known for portraying Tom Shayes in Damages, Jimmy Cooper in The O.C., and also had supporting roles in films, such as Good Night, and Good Luck and Argo. Donovan also played Brian Sanders in Hostages, 24: Live Another Day and Friends. 12 Roger Bart was the singing voice of Hercules. He made his Broadway debut in Big River as Tom Sawyer. He appeared in King David, Triumph of Love, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown 13 The Producers and The Frogs. Bart also originated the lead role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in the musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. 14

Danny DeVito as Philoctetes. He became known for playing Louie De Palma in Taxi, which won him a Golden Globe and an Emmy. He is known for his roles in Tin Men, Throw Momma from the Train, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ruthless People, Man on the Moon, Terms of Endearment, Romancing the Stone, Twins, Batman Returns, Look Who’s Talking Now, Big Fish, Other People’s Money, Get Shorty, Be Cool, and L.A. Confidential. As a producer he produced such films and shows as Pulp Fiction, Garden State, Freedom Writers, Reno 911!, Matilda, and Erin Brockovich. He stars as Frank Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 15 James Woods 16 as Hades. 17 Woods has appeared in a variety of films, most known for Videodrome, Salvador, Casino, Ghosts of Mississippi, and Contact. 18

Susan Egan as Megara. 19 While attending UCLA, Egan took time off when Tommy Tune cast her as Kim in his touring production of Bye Bye Birdie. After the tour ended, she was cast in the tour of State Fair and won the coveted role of Belle in the original Broadway cast of Beauty and the Beast, for which she was nominated for the Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award, Outstanding Actress in a Musical.

Rip Torn as Zeus. 20 He has appeared in King of Kings, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Cincinnati Kid, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Beastmaster, Airplane II: The Sequel, Summer Rental , Defending Your Life, Men in Black, The Insider, Wonder Boys, Freddy Got Fingered and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Samantha Eggar as Hera. She rose to fame for her performance in William Wyler’s thriller The Collector, which earned her a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She appeared in Doctor Dolittle, The Molly Maguires, The Seven Per-Cent Solution, The Dead Are Alive, The Uncanny, and The Brood.

Lillias White as Calliope.21 She won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for portraying Sonja in Cy Coleman’s The Life. Cheryl Freeman as Melpomene.22 She played the Acid Queen in The Who’s Tommy on Broadway.  LaChanze as Terpsichore.23 She won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in 2006 for her role in The Color Purple. Roz Ryan as Thalia24. She is well known for her part in the television show, Amen, as Amelia HetebrinkaVanéese Y. Thomas as Clio. 25 She is best known for her 1987 US Billboard R&B chart hit single, “Let’s Talk It Over

Bobcat Goldthwait as Pain. Stand up comedian who appeared in the Police Academy movies and Scrooged. He lends his voice to several animated projects. Matt Frewer as Panic. He is best known for portraying 80s icon Max Headroom. He appeared in the television miniseries The Stand, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Dawn of the Dead, and Watchmen. On television, he appeared on DaVinci’s Inquest, Batman: The Animsted Series, Supernatural, Orphan Black, and Altered Carbon.

Hal Holbrook as Amphitryon. He became known for his performance as Deep Throat in All the President’s Men. He appeared in such films as Julia, The Fog, Creepshow, Wall Street, The Firm, Men of Honor, Into the Wild, and Lincoln. Holbrook has won five Primetime Emmy Awards and a Tony Award for his 1966 portrayal of Twain in Mark Twain Tonight. Barbara Barrie as Alcmene. She is best known for her role as Evelyn Stoller in Breaking Away, which brought her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1979 and an Emmy Award nomination in 1981 when she reprised the role in the television series based on the film. Barrie also is known for her extensive work in the theatre, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in 1971 for originating the role of Sarah in Stephen Sondheim’s Company. She also appeared on Barney Miller.

Amanda Plummer as Clotho. She is known for such films as Joe Versus The Volcano, The Fisher King, Pulp Fiction, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Plummer won a Tony Award in 1982 for her performance in Agnes of God. Carole Shelley returns as Lachesis. Among her many stage roles are the character of Madame Morrible in the original Broadway cast of the musical Wicked. She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in The Elephant Man in 1979.

Paddi Edwards 26 returns as Atropos. She appeared in The Little Mermaid as Flotsam and Jetsam. She is also known as Anya, a shapeshifting mother-figure, on the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Dauphin”, as well as providing the voice of Gozer in Ghostbusters. Paul Shaffer as Hermes. He is best known as David Letterman’s long time band leader and sidekick. He was a musician on Saturday Night Live where he appeared in the lounge-singer sketches with Bill Murray

Other voices include Frank Welker, Jim Cummings, Wayne Knight, 27 Keith David, and Charlton Heston.

Critical Reception: James Woods received universal acclaim from film reviewers for his vocal performance as Hades. Reviewing for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman graded the film an A- acclaiming that it was Woods’ most exciting performance since Salvador publishing that “Woods’ performance is an inspired piece of deadpan vaudeville. His dry jocularity is hilariously incongruous — he’s like a hostile, wisecracking salesman trapped in the body of the Antichrist.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a positive review of the film, enjoying the story as well as the animation. Ebert also praised Woods’ portrayal of Hades, stating that Woods brings “something of the same verbal inventiveness that Robin Williams brought to Aladdin”.

Legacy: Hercules was later followed by the direct-to-video prequel Hercules: Zero to Hero, which served as the pilot to Hercules: The Animated Series, a syndicated Disney TV series focusing on Hercules during his time at the Prometheus academy. Hades will sometimes appear at the Halloween party at Disney World

My take: This is one of my favorites. I absolutely love the Muses, and I think they make the story work. They are story tellers, after all, and they are retelling the story in a contemporary style with contemporary music. 28 “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” is one of my favorite songs. “Go the Distance,” however, sounds like something written for NBC’s Olympic coverage.

Meg is probably the sexiest Disney character this side of Jessica Rabbit. And as much as I may find many things to dislike about him, I find that Woods really does nail the role of Hades. And above all, the film is actually funny.

Computer animation at this point still looks like computer animation, and therefore calls attention to itself. The Hyrda sequence looks great, but it doesn’t blend with the look of the rest of the film. However that sequence would have been almost impossible to animate by hand.

Next Week: We head to China for Mulan.