The period known today as the Disney Renaissance took place between 1989’s release of The Little Mermaid and 1999’s arrival of Tarzan. One of the films released in that decade-long span turns 20 this year – Hercules. Debuting on June 15, 1997, Hercules was based on the ancient myth of the hero Hercules, the son of Zeus from Greek mythology.
One of the greatest Greek heroes, the original myth described Hercules as a twin, born with his brother Iphicles to a mortal woman named Alcmene as the result of an affair with Zeus. Zeus’ wife, Hera, hated Hercules because of Zeus’ infidelity; her hatred for him eventually drew him mad enough to kill his entire family. Because of his crime, he was required to carry out ten labors, including slaying the Nemean Lion and the Hydra, capture the Cretan Bull, and so on.
Disney’s version of the story was – obviously – made significantly more tame for the sake of family audiences. In the film, Hercules was the legitimate son of Zeus and Hera who was kidnapped from Olympus by some of Hades’ minions and eventually found by simple farmers and raised as a mortal on Earth. Thanks to his clumsy nature paired with his superhuman strength, he ends up as somewhat of an outcast. His adoptive parents eventually tell him about his lineage, and he is told by Zeus that he can gain a place among the gods in Olympus if he becomes a true hero.
During his training to become a hero under Phil, a satyr, he meets Megara and quickly falls for her. However, Megara is stuck serving Hades, and the king of the underworld is able to use her in an attempt to kill Hercules. Hades eventually lets loose the great Titans on Olympus; however, Hercules manages to prove his worth as a hero and save Meg and the rest of the gods as well.
Production of the film actually began as early as 1992, when an animated adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey was pitched. Eventually the vision shifted to other Greek and Roman myths, and Hercules’ story was settled on as it was viewed as a way for Disney to do a “superhero” film without actually doing a comic book story. Animation began in 1995 with about 700 different artists working on the film. The memorable sequence with the Hydra, which lasted about four minutes’ worth of screentime, took more than a year to animate.
Hercules received somewhat mixed reviews when it released; James Woods’ vocal acting as Hades was widely praised, though the animation style used for the film was polarizing. Commercially, though, Hercules was seen as a bit of a disappointment, especially when compared to the likes of Pocahontas and The Lion King. Hercules took in $252 million worldwide, which seemed paltry compared to Hunchback of Notre Dame’s $325 million and Pocahontas’ $346 million. Disney’s stock actually dropped by nearly 10% because of the lackluster box office returns.
But with 20 years in the rearview mirror now, Hercules has largely stood the test of time. The song “Go The Distance” remains a fan favorite and is still prominently used in Disney productions, such as the “Happily Ever After” fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom, and the characters continue to show up frequently in the Kingdom Hearts series of games.