Disney followed up The Hunchback of Notre Dame (probably their most under rated film, in my opinion) with their take on one of the archetypal heroes, Hercules (not really under rated, so much as just… kind of… there). It’s probably pretty safe to say that the company’s golden age of animation was behind it by this point, but I can’t help being amazed at just how tonally different this film is in comparison to its predecessor.
Now, it’s not entirely fair to compare two Disney movies that released only a year apart, especially when we’re talking about animated film. The production time on animated features is typically measured in years, so there wouldn’t have been much overlap in talent between the two productions (except Alan Menken doing the music for both films, which is a pretty big contrast; going from a score based on Catholic liturgical music to something heavily inspired by Gospel music and Mo-Town is impressive). Even so, I really like Hunchback, and Hercules is about as far away from it in terms of tone and theme as you can get.
So what’s interesting about Hercules as a film? I mean, Hunchback had the aesthetic core of contrasting light and dark that ran through everything in the production (all the way to having every musical number by Quasimodo paired with a countersong from Frollo). Hercules has… a Grecian art aesthetic mixed with what I’ll call Soul music (that mix of Gospel and Mo-Town that I mentioned earlier). It’s a really weird mix, because one makes a lot of sense and really meshes with the setting and subject, while the other is what you paint on the side of pots.
That was a joke.
Actually, both components of the film’s style really do work well in connection with the subject matter, but they require the viewer to look a little askew to get what’s going on. Hercules is the story of a god who loses his divinity and embarks on a quest to recover it. It’s a pretty major departure from the source material (but being Disney, it’s not really surprising that Hercules wouldn’t remain the son of one of Zeus’s many illicit affairs; the flip side is that the joke Philoctetes makes about the absurdity of Hercules being Zeus’s son is really backwards, because pretty much every Greek hero in the mythological canon was related to Zeus somehow; as a professional hero trainer, Phil should have been more genre savvy), but the core idea that this is a story about the son of a god coming down to live among mortals and then going about showing that he’s really divine fits pretty well with the traditional subject matter of Gospel.
Of course, that’s about as far as I feel comfortable going in comparing Hercules to Jesus. Perhaps if we had a proxy, some other archetypal hero who reflected the qualities of both figures…
Yeah, the basic plot for Hercules‘s first act is just Superman’s origin story retold with a pleasant Greek couple (Alcmene, who was Heracles’s mother in the original myths, and her husband Amphitryon) in place of the Kents.
Heck, when we get into the structure of character relationships, we start to see a few parallels between not just Hercules and Supes, but also Megara and Lois Lane as well as Hades and Lex Luthor (the Gene Hackman depiction, anyway).
But I’ll get into that in more depth next time. For now, let’s just marvel at how weird this movie’s design is.