20 Movies 20 Years Later

Years Before Marvel Ruled The Box Office, Disney's Take On Greek Mythology Explored What It Means To Be A Hero

"Hercules" turns 20 this year.

20 Movies 20 Years Later remembers and explores the films that touched us back then and still resonate today. Join A Plus as we rewatch movies released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions to pop culture.

Between 1989 and 1999, moviegoers were treated to a string of successful animated movies, from The Little Mermaid to Tarzan, which collectively marked an era known as the Disney Renaissance — a defining period of many millennials' childhoods

Hercules, released in 1997, may not have been quite as successful at the box office or with the critics as some of the decade's previous animated titles, but many fans, as well as several online outlets, from BuzzFeed to Vulture, have declared it "underrated" in the years since.

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For the movie's most loyal defenders (specifically, this writer), its appeal stems from its fresh takes on not only the classic (or rather, classical) story from which it stems, but also the Disney animated genre as a whole — from the influence of gospel music in the infectious soundtrack by Alan Menken and David Zippel, to the inclusion of anti-princess Megara (Susan Egan), who introduces herself to Hercules (Tate Donovan) by declaring, "I'm a damsel. I'm in distress. I can handle this. Have a nice day!"

Much like the live-action television series of the same name that premiered two years earlier, Disney took inspiration from the Greek legend of Heracles, who is known in the movie by his Roman name, Hercules. However, certain liberties were taken to make the story more family-friendly. Zeus' affair with the mortal Alcmene was thrown out in favor of a happier marriage with Hera, who is depicted as Hercules' mother. In this version, god of the Underworld Hades (voiced to overwhelmingly positive reviews by James Woods) attempts to turn Hercules mortal with a potion. However, because he doesn't drink every last drop, he retains his godlike strength. The hero's murder of his own children with Megara, after being driven mad by Hera, is also omitted, for obvious reasons.

Disney also spun the ancient tale forward for a contemporary audience, partly by inserting modern references and in-jokes (from Grecian Express credit cards to Air-Herc athletic sandals), as well as crafting what is essentially a superhero story — an intention which director John Musker confirmed in a 2012 interview, adding that he and fellow director Ron Clements were both comic book fans.

More than a decade before Disney bought Marvel and dominated the box office with multiple superhero releases every year, Hercules drew parallels to many of the characters we currently meet at the cinema each weekend. His transformation from an awkward outcast to a superhuman celebrity (or "Zero to Hero") is reminiscent of heroes such as Captain America or Spider-Man. His determination to utilize the gift that makes him different in order to do good, meanwhile, brings to mind the X-Men. And, of course, mythology in turn forms the basis for several modern superhero stories, from Thor to Wonder Woman.

But perhaps the most striking similarity points to the most famous superhero of all — Superman. In his 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert references critic Jack Mathews, who was early in pointing out the comparison. "In both Hercules and the Superman story, the hero has otherworldly origins, is separated from his parents, is adopted by humble earthlings, and feels like a weirdo as a kid before finally finding his true strength and calling," Ebert writes.

Indeed, most of the movie's plot focuses on Hercules' attempts to rejoin the gods on Mount Olympus after he discovers his true parentage from his adoptive parents. "I will go most anywhere / To find where I belong," Hercules sings in the Oscar-nominated "Go the Distance." It's an undoubtedly familiar feeling for many adopted children who seek out their birth families — even those who don't have superhuman abilities. It's worth noting, however, that Hercules doesn't abandon the family who raised him in the process of his search. He uses his newfound fortune to buy them a larger home, and reunites with them in the movie's final number.

Of course, as with any Disney movie (and most superhero movies, for that matter), there's a lesson to be learned. In this case, it happens to be about the very nature of heroism. Hercules is disappointed when his many feats of strength — slaying beasts and earning applause from the masses — aren't enough to let him rejoin the gods. "I'm afraid being famous isn't the same as being a true hero," Zeus (Rip Torn) tells him.

In the end, it's Hercules' willingness to sacrifice himself for the one he loves that finally makes him heroic enough — although by then, he's already found where he belongs. As his trainer Phil (Danny DeVito) sings in "One Last Hope," it's a "work of heart" to become a true hero. "It takes more than sinew / Comes down to what's in you," he adds. "You have to continue to grow." Perhaps the hero's journey was more important than the destination.

In the end, possibly the most Disneyfied aspect of the message is that those watching can be just as heroic in their own ways — a message which continues to ring true. "Just remember in the darkest hour," the Muses sing at the close of the movie, "Within your heart's the power / For making you / A hero, too."

Hercules is available on AmazonGoogle Play, Hulu, iTunes, and YouTube.

Cover image: Walt Disney Pictures

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