90s Disney Animated Movies: Why Hercules Was the Studio’s Secret Hero

’90s Week: Ron Clements and John Musker’s animated reimagining of the Greek myth needed to be a major hit, but its box office disappointment obscures its many enduring strengths.

On the evening of June 14, 1997, Walt Disney Animation Studios took over Manhattan’s Times Square for a larger-than-life launch for their 35th animated feature. Amid dance numbers and celebrity arrivals, “Hercules” premiered at the New Amsterdam Theater, then newly reopened to serve as the home of “The Lion King” musical. Right outside, the Main Street Electrical Parade made its way along the famed 42nd Street.

Transported from Disneyland in California to New York City for the occasion, this procession of floats — illuminated by thousands of lights — debuted two new vessels in honor of the film that everyone had gathered to celebrate. It was a promotional act worthy of the gods, broadcast live across the country for anyone who wanted to get a glimpse at the latest addition to the Disney pantheon: A wisecracking family tale about a certain Greek demigod (voiced by Tate Donovan) finding his way back home to Mt. Olympus.

Even for Disney’s summer tentpoles, such bombastic marketing displays were hardly standard practice; on the contrary, what the Mouse House was doing for “Hercules” was a deliberate — even desperate — extra push for a film that needed to surpass its predecessor. As the follow up to the underperforming “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which underperformed (which likely suffered from its mature undertones), “Hercules” had a world of pressure on its rippling shoulders.

Twenty-five years later, this wacky take on heroism and the cult of celebrity by way of remolded mythology seldom comes up as a cornerstone when people look back at the ’90s renaissance period that saved Disney’s animation division. That’s a mistake.

HERCULES, from left: Hades, Hercules, 1997, ©Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

“Hercules”

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

In 1994, “The Lion King” set a staggering standard for the kind of box office numbers an animated film could deliver, grossing over a $1 billion worldwide. But Disney’s savannah-set adaptation of “Hamlet” would prove something of an outlier, its success nearly impossible to replicate. “Hercules” arrived after the studio attempted to chase prestige with concepts heavier in solemnity and historical relevance, including the House of Mouse’s take on “Pocahontas” (1995) and “Hunchback” (1996), the latter adapted from a literary classic that few would have imagined as children’s fare.

Disney needed another bonafide hit. Fortunately, they had directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who became certified hitmakers with “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and “Aladdin” (1992), to push “Hercules” into bold tonal and stylistic directions. Hopes were high.

Box Office Bust

So, what happened? The simple answer: Not enough people cared. The movie just didn’t make the money. “Hercules” amassed a total of $99.1 million domestically during a summer plagued with franchises. It was the second-lowest-grossing WDAS’s film of the ’90s, only faring better than 1990’s “The Rescuers Down Under,” a sequel to the “The Rescuers” from 1977. Instead of rebounding from “Hunchback” ($100.1 million), “Hercules” grossed even less.

In the weeks before its wide release on June 17, 1997, Warner Bros. opened “Batman & Robin” and Universal debuted “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” both titles that appealed to similar, only slightly older demographics. That an original animated effort had to battle it out with sequels to popular mega-properties pointed to where the industry was heading — and what has become a fact of life in 21st century Hollywood.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times at the time, “Hercules” producer Alice Dewey noted how live-action superheroes were overpowering animated narratives. “You can do ‘Batman’ and all these event movies and get away with anything,” Dewey said. “I don’t know when it swapped over, but live-action has become the cartoon and we’ve become the art film.”

Her comments now read as an eerie premonition for the current entertainment landscape of which Disney and its “content” factories has become the biggest driver.

HERCULES, from left: Hercules, Pegasus, 1997, ©Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

“Hercules”

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

Air-Herc

Back in the era of “Hercules,” merchandising was a key point in the studios’ battle for attention. A year earlier, “Hunchback of Notre Dame” toys had stayed on the shelves, making retailers weary about stocking up on items related to “Hercules.” Still, Disney went ahead and licensed the characters banking on this auxiliary revenue.

On this front too, they had to go up against “Batman & Robin” and “Jurassic Park” action figures and play sets. Earlier that same year, the original “Star Wars” trilogy was re-released in theaters, and that also meant new products were fabricated and still in circulation.

A turning point for Disney, however, and perhaps what granted them a bit of a leg up at least among the youngest of consumers, came when “Hercules” became their first movie to benefit from the company’s partnership with mighty fast food chain McDonald’s. That’s how Herc himself and all the other characters made their way inside your Happy Meals.

The fact that “Hercules” was at the center of the merchandise wars of its time will always seems like a turn of events that heightened the meta quality of the story on screen. As muscly Herc defeats some of the most feared mythical beasts in the land, much to the despair of the ruler of the underworld, Hades, he quickly gains megastar status.

A musical montage to the tune of “Zero to Hero” — one of lauded composer Alan Menken’s tunes for this Greek tragicomedy — shows Hercules transforming into a money-printing brand overnight through merchandise deals à la Michael Jordan, the demigod hawking his own brand of aerodynamic sandals, Air-Hercs. A devoted legion of adoring fans buy it all.

“From appearance fees and royalties/Our Herc had cash to burn/Now nouveau rich and famous/He could tell what a Grecian urn,” sing the muses, making it very clear that the hunk’s ascend into household name was a remunerative feat for him and those around him.

The movie’s anachronistic commentary on our celebrity obsession, and how businesses benefit from it, reaches its most amusing point when Herc himself holds up a toy of his chiseled figure and exclaims, “I’m an action figure!” In the next scene, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), Hades’ inept sidekicks, reveal their own weakness against the new god of Athenian pop culture when they meet their malevolent master wearing Air-Hercs and drinking Herculade. Talk about built-in product placement.

“Beyond the Myth of Heracles”

Money talk aside, the global rollout of “Hercules’” also serves as a reminder that the depiction of a specific culture or people on screen causing outrage isn’t a symptom of 21st century “wokeness,” as those reluctant to rethink their stances would have you believe. While it’s certainly true that social media exacerbates our awareness of the issues audiences have with popular media, vocal criticisms about the Disneyfication of country-specific stories without much concern their narrative origins goes back a long time.

Upon the film’s release in Greece, as The Guardian’s Greece correspondent Helena Smith reported back then, regular citizens as well as academics were appalled at how the studio had adapted one of their foundational tales, even going as far as to throwing popcorn at the screen to express their disenchantment with this new incarnation of the superhuman.

To ensure that Greek viewers were aware that Disney’s “Hercules” was a loose interpretation of the sacred myth and not a historically accurate endeavor, the film was retitled “Beyond the Myth of Heracles,” returning the hero to his Greek name. Greek academics focused their discontent on how Heracles’ less than ideal parents were Disneyfied as the loving marriage between Zeus and Hera, when the powerful boy’s mother was in fact Zeus’ mistress Alcmene. (Furthermore, the legend has it that Hera actually attempted to kill baby Hercules by sending two snakes after him.)

HERCULES, Pegasus, Philoctetes (voice: Danny DeVito), Hercules (voice: Tate Donovan), Meg (voice: Susan Egan) 1997. © Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

“Hercules”

©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Their gripe also singled out the liberties taken with the protagonist’s accomplishments while among mortals. Unlike the hand-drawn iteration of Hercules, the one in the folklore did not defeat the beastly minotaur or the snake-headed medusa.

Quoted in Smith’s piece, a University of Athens antiquities expert named Vasillis Lambrinodakis also voiced his fears that the production would miseducate the youth. “They may have wanted to make it more viewer-friendly, but if they only wanted to be inspired by it they really should have changed the characters’ names,” he told her. “Hollywood films have power. Children will watch and understand it much more easily than, say, reading a book at school. I’m afraid it will remain with them.”

The widespread anger resulted in poor ticket sales for the animated epic in the Mediterranean nation. (This was not the only incident of its type during the ’90s for Disney, as both “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Pocahontas” respectively inspired negative reactions from Victor Hugo’s descendants in France and Native American leaders in the Untied States.)

The Big Swings

Despite the controversy, “Hercules” stands out as one of the first WDAS movies released after micromanaging leader Jeffrey Katzenberg left the studio for DreamWorks in 1994, and Clements and Musker have acknowledged how that change allowed for more creative freedom. If observed solely as a piece of amusing animated art, “Hercules” delights for its vivacious energy, upbeat music, wonderfully over-stylized design, and sharp humor.

Tonally, the film is more attuned to Clements and Musker’s own “Aladdin” than to any other Disney title of its decade. In hindsight, “Hercules” feels like a predecessor to the kind of tongue-in-cheek comedy that would become the calling card for 21st century animated movies such as “Shrek” or even Disney’s “The Emperor’s New Groove,” which mine pop culture references in ways that may at times go over the young audience’s head.

HERCULES, from left: Hercules, Megara, 1997, ©Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

“Hercules”

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

As for its thematic touchstones, much has been written about Megara (Susan Egan) as a unique female character within the Disney canon. Neither a princess nor a damsel in distress, Meg’s plight is to regain the autonomy she relinquished for the sake of a lover that eventually dismissed her. Understandably guarded, she won’t say she is in love with Herc.

Yet, of all the changes Disney made to transition the lore into entertainment, none are more revolutionary (if still grossly insufficient) than the decision to cast the muses who narrate Hercules’ adventures as a gospel choir of Black women. Calliope (Lillias White), Clio (Vaneese Y. Thomas), Melpomene (Cheryl Freeman), Terpsichore (LaChanze), and Thalia (Roz Ryan) were the only on-screen Black characters in any of the studio’s animated ’90s projects.

In a piece for Gizmodo published in 2020 about the upcoming live-action reinterpretation of Disney’s “Hercules” to be directed by Guy Ritchie, film critic Charles Pulliam-Moore explained why the implications of casting Black women in the roles then and now merits careful consideration. “The Muses’ larger significance was something that might have been lost on non-Black theatergoers who don’t quite understand what it meant to see and hear elements of Black culture and Black people put front and center in a way that was intentionally reverential and not at all disparaging,” he wrote.

As for technical innovation, “Hercules” benefited from use of CG elements to enhance 2D animation that had become more and more prominent in the process since the ballroom sequence in “Beauty and the Beast.” The construction of the Hydra, a serpent-like monster capable of regrowing and multiplying its heads whenever one of them is chopped off, is where the intermingling between the digital and the traditional hand-drawn artistry that the studio was famous for came together most impressively in the film.

In a section dedicated to the conception of this creature in “The Art of Hercules: The Chaos of Creation,” the official book about the design and making of the picture, Roger Gould, Head of CG, dives into the choice of bringing in it to life in this manner. “There were two main reasons we decided to create the Hydra as a 3-D computer animated character — complexity and dimensionality. Ron and John wanted to push the boundaries of what you’d expect a multi-headed beast could be,” he said.

Top of the Mount (Olympus)

Because of its peculiarities, the bizarrely fun “Hercules” failed to singlehandedly put Walt Disney Animation Studios atop of the Mount Olympus of animation, but it nevertheless stands as an unexpected turning point for the expectations that the company forces onto their works. That the brawny son of Zeus didn’t stand much of a chance against the prowess of the franchise machinery was truly indicative of what was to come for most original films.

After “Hercules,” WDAS closed out its last decade of mostly 2D animated fables by releasing “Mulan” (1998) and “Tarzan” (1999), both far more financially fortunate than the disappointing worldwide sum of $250.7 million that “Hercules” had earned in the end.

Nonetheless, the movie’s four Annie Awards wins (Directing, Character Animation, Producing, and Effects) and an Oscar nod for Menken and David Zippel’s “Go the Distance” recognized the craft involved beyond its sales value. As the muses so wisely sung in their final track: “Just when everything was all at sea/The boy made history/The bottom line/He sure can shine.”

This article was published as part of IndieWire’s ’90s Week spectacular. Visit our ’90s Week page for more.

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