“Olympus Would Be That Way”: Hercules (1997) and Disney’s Mythology

“From Zero to Hero”

When I was in elementary school, we had a unit on ancient mythology, and our textbooks came with different illustrations of the Gods, from Egyptian to Greek. Before we began our lesson, however, our teacher had to explain to us that these were outdated faiths (specifically ancient), and that our modern culture had rightfully moved away from polytheism. Although my school wasn’t officially Christian, a large Christian populace attended, and so lessons were generally targeted to them, much to my confusion. They even passed out little permission slips that would excuse certain students from attending the few mythology classes we had, because they didn’t believe in learning about false Gods. Whatever mythology we learned about came with these specific conditions, the kind which kept the myths as old and irrelevant moral tales, something I firmly disagree with. I am still stunned by my classmates’ reactions to mythology, the genuine fear and dismissal they showed to learning about other cultures, other faiths. Disney contented with something similar for their animated adaptation of Hercules, as they didn’t want to ostracize any viewers, especially Christian or conservative, but they also wanted market something which people still worship. It was different than the fairy tale films Disney had done before, more complicated, and Disney has a complicated history with authorship.

Disney loves to borrow from the public domain without returning anything. Many of its films are direct adaptations of free use stories like Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, and Beauty and the Beast. Once Disney produces a version of these free stories, however, it carefully manages what should be accessible to all. They have proven their willingness to sue and destroy certain small businesses over what they call ‘unlicensed merchandise’, or anything which looks even somewhat like their property. The same shade of blue in Cinderella’s dress, for instance. You can still produce an adaptation of Cinderella, as it’s public domain, but you must be extremely careful of how you present that story. The public domain thus holds a strange duality, as its story and characters are free use, but thanks to companies like Disney, their shape is not. But what happens when you borrow a story that has no ultimate text? No book nor specific author. What happens when you try to possess something which belongs to an entire culture?  

“I haven’t seen this much love in a room since Narcissus discovered himself.”

I have often felt that Greek myths echo forward, much like the literal Echo. According to the ancient Greeks, a heartbroken Echo faded into the mountains, and yet despite this retreat, her voice presses forward and multiplies. When we call out, she strings our words, makes them more than what they were. Stories work the same way. When one person tells a story, regardless of medium, it moves outward and echoes into other works, other reverberations. The myth never ends, it just transforms and spreads. That is what the public domain is for, to foster a non-competitive realm of creativity and support, where creators can turn to past works and make something new with them. Mythology has operated in this manner since the beginning.

I have already spoken at length about my love for mythology on this blog, especially Greek mythology. I was one of those kids obsessed with the Percy Jackson books, still am, and that interest expanded into my later academic work. Rick Riordan’s books were not the only influence, however, as there was one film which introduced Greek mythology to countless 90s children, including myself. Disney’s Hercules is my all-time favourite Disney movie. It has everything- amazing style, music, story, humour. Everything. But it is also glaringly different than any of its other projects. The company has recently introduced other mythology into its universe, specifically elements of Polynesian myth in Moana (2016) and South Asian in Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), but Hercules was the first time Disney made a direct adaptation of mythology. Sort of. It’s certainly the only one they want you to remember. In addition to a few 1930’s cartoons, Fantasia (1940) has a mythological section, although it has been heavily edited in recent years. The film features an extremely racist caricature of a black woman as a centaur, and she was removed before the film hit Disney+. Disney has tried to remove all footage and imagery of this scene to essentially erase the film’s racism rather than acknowledging it. I mention this because Hercules was the first time Disney returned to Greek mythology, and it makes a specific adjustment to the Hercules myth because of that history.  

What makes the Hercules film unique is that unlike Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon, it is based on a specific myth that is widely known, already cinematic, and has no specific author tied to it. There are multiple versions of the Hercules myth, and although they share similar characteristics and events, each take the story in a slightly different direction. That continues today, as you can pick up a mythology book by a modern author and chart what that author has revisited and transformed. Unlike the Odyssey or the Iliad, both of which are tied to Homer, Hercules is a broader story, referenced by many but tied to none. It began, as so many myths do, as an oral story, performed for the public and not written down. What we call Hercules thus comes from patchwork, bits of information and character brought and stitched from multiple places and eras. This means that Hercules is a flexible story, as although it has a general shape, this shape changes with every adaptation. That said, Disney does something bizarre to the myth, something slightly hypocritical given its background with public domain merchandise. Before I explore that, I think it would be useful to examine what the big changes between Disney’s Hercules and the mythology are.

“But if you found me, then where did I come from? Why was I left here?

First off, his name isn’t Hercules. Shocker, I know. The Romans called him that, but the Greeks called him Heracles. The Roman ‘borrowed’ a lot from the Greeks, including their pantheon, and they typically renamed figures, including Heracles. Heracles’ name was changed because he was originally named after Hera, but the Roman’s had decided to rename Hera, so Heracles wouldn’t make any sense. I guess Hercules just sounds better than Heracles, as people continue to call him that even when referring to Greek mythology. That explains why Disney’s Hercules uses his Roman name while everyone else goes by their Greek title. That brings me to the second change in Disney’s Hercules, his relationship with Hera. The myth tells us that Heracles is the son of Zeus and Alcmene, a human mortal. She named him Heracles to appease Hera, Zeus’ wife, as she knew that Hera would try to destroy the boy. And she did, multiple times, and that includes sending snakes to murder him in his cradle. We see a version of this scene in Disney’s film, but Hera is not responsible. The same outcome arrives, baby Hercules strangles the snakes and saves himself, but the rational is quite different.

Disney needed a different villain, because they couldn’t figure out how to justify Hercules’ parentage and the affair. It didn’t work for a children’s film, or at least a film targeting a broad and often Christian audience, and so they picked a more obvious and often vilified figure: Hades, God of the Dead and the Underworld. I can understand why they shifted away from Hera, as it makes Hercules’ goal feel more direct, becoming a specific quest to become a God and take his rightful place beside his Godly parents, who are both undoubtable good rather than complex. As well, Hera is the well-respected Queen of the Gods, and Goddess of marriage and family, so which is the more sellable villain? The God of the Dead or of Family? I am not saying either would be great, just that Disney went with the easier choice. Hades does appear in the Hercules myth, but he actually helps Hercules by letting him borrow Cerberus, the massive three-headed dog who guards the Underworld, so he can finish his 12th labor.

Changing the villain isn’t even Disney’s largest adjustment, as the Hercules’ myth is pretty R rated. Take Megara, for instance, as she appears in both the myth and Disney film, although she leaves early in the myth. Hercules murders her and their seven children after Hera drives him mad. When he awakens from his fit, and realizes what he has done, he tries to atone himself through 12 impossible labors, tasked by Hera’s favourite King. We see a few of these in the Disney film, but the motivation is different. There, Hercules is trying to prove himself as a hero, rather than proving that he should be forgiven for murdering his family. You can see why they changed things. Fun fact, a few of the labors don’t appear in Disney’s film, and for good reason. There is no scene where Hercules tries to clean a filthy stable without drowning in dung (labor #5 if you are curious).

“I’ve defeated every single monster I’ve come up against. I’m the most famous person in all of Greece. I’m an action figure!”

The Hercules myth has been read multiple ways, as some regard it as a standard myth, while others argue that it’s more of an allegory or Aesop fable type which the Greeks used to talk about morals. Disney favours the later, as the biggest shift in its film is the way it handles mythology and religion as separate things.

For centuries, cultures have picked at Greek mythology (and many other mythologies), taken aspects, and incorporated them into their own religion and culture. The Romans are perhaps the most obvious example of this, but they didn’t just copy things. For example, the Greek Goddess Athena, of wisdom, strength, and battle intelligence, is quite different than her Roman counterpart, Minerva. I am no expert in these changes, and some of them are quite nuanced, but there are notable differences. Minerva comes from a different history, and her battle tactics reflect Roman tactics, which were different than Greek. The Romans also had a different regard for women, and Athena’s powerful position was difficult for both Roman and Greeks to content with. Both cultures were incredibly sexist but also worshiped this all-powerful Goddess of War.

Christianity, particularly in Europe and America, likewise incorporated Greek mythology, and created this uneasy iconographic balance. Knowing Greek mythology is a huge asset in studying English literature, history, and art, as these icons appear everywhere, as does their influence. From Romantic era poets to Mary Shelley and James Joyce, not to mention modern authorship. Powerful figures have also defined themselves through mythology, often requesting portraits where they appear like a certain God or are named after one. There is always a tension between this representation and Christianity, as the creators I just mentioned were brought up Christian, and lived in a Christian society, but still made these references to another religion. The classics were mandatory reading in Europe, even though their pantheon seemingly opposed Christianity. These Gods thus took on a new shape, one where people still built temples and created images of them, but those people incorporated themselves into worship. They appeared as the Gods; they enjoyed the decorative temples built on their estates. They inserted themselves into the myths and used these stories to define themselves. It’s no surprise that this manifest deity appears in American culture, as even the White House’s neoclassical style was modeled after Greek architecture. We might need permission slips to read Greek mythology here in Canada, at least in my small town, but that tells me that there remains some discomfort over the line between myth and faith, and how prevalent these figures remain. So, what was Disney to do? How could they make a myth feel relevant and modern without angering anyone?

“You are wearing his merchandise?!”

Disney made Hercules into a commentary on fame and merchandise, two modern problems. That modernity immediately distinguishes it from the traditional pantheon. Although it features many mythological figures, it makes these characters comedic and modern, thus adjusting the way in which we view them. For instance, Philoctetes goes by Phil, and although he appears as a satyr, he is based on Chiron, the great centaur who taught famous heroes like Heracles and Achilles. Philoctetes is not particularly relevant in the myth, he is just a human who Heracles helps. This begs the question: why change Chiron into a satyr and then change his name? I think there were several reasons, some practical and other symbolic. First, I imagine centaurs are hard to animate, being half horse and half human, and Hercules already has Pegasus in the film. It figures that the animators wanted to shy away from two horse characters, and so they instead went with a half goat. Second, and perhaps this is reading into things, the racist caricature from Fantasia was a centaur and appeared during a whole centaur sequence. It’s possible that Disney wanted to avoid all connection to this earlier work, and that included centaurs. Third, none of the characters are exactly as they appear in mythology, they are more modern and understandable, or in other words, more American. The gospel songs (a Christian tradition) and the American accents. Disney created characters to oppose what many assume Greek mythology is like. The implication is that Disney’s mythology is not what you see in a textbook, and therefore detached from this historic and religious background. We see this in the film’s opening sequence, as a booming voice begins to narrate to an empty museum of entirely white marble statues, and then the Muses appear to remind him that this story is not boring or old. The scene takes the Greek out of Greek mythology, removes it from these statues and history and makes it modern, familiar, and American.

The references made in the film are also largely Western, with a mythic twist. For example, Hercules wears ‘Air Herc’ sandals at one point, a clear reference to Nike footwear, which is incidentally named after the Goddess of Victory. Disney also makes references to itself, as we see Hercules posing for a portrait with the nemean lion head, like in mythology, but it looks like Scar from The Lion King. This moment illustrates that mythology must come through Disney’s Western lens, not the historic. It can’t just be a lion; it has to be Disney’s lion. The characterization also picks up on this, as Hades is more of a businessman, a Devil signing deals. Hades does make quite a few deals in mythology, like with Orpheus, so his characterization here is appropriate, while still modern. I have more trouble with the fact that one of my favourite animated films includes James Wood and Charlton Heston, both of whom are terrible people but amazing in this film.

While the characters overall are Disney-fied, if such a term exists, they are still an interesting interpretation of mythology. As I mentioned prior, mythology has this amazing capacity for change, more so than any fairy tale. It is the ultimate public domain, as people have adapted these figures for so long that they have never really disappeared. That is the whole basis for the Percy Jackson series, which suggests that the Gods are still worshipped, but not in a traditional sense, more in an iconographic. Their images and influence are everywhere, and exceedingly relevant. That phenomenon is why I am not entirely bothered by the changes Disney makes to Hercules, as it’s no different than what other people have done for ages. Hercules is not even the first cartoon adaptation, as there was a Hercules TV show named The Mighty Hercules from the 1960’s, which featured the hero and his satyr friend Tewt on adventures. Phil is probably a combination of this character and Chiron. You can tell that Disney put some effort into researching, as they incorporated quite a few easter eggs for people who are familiar with mythology and this adaptive context. It therefore offers something to a range of backgrounds.

“They think ‘No’ means ‘Yes’ and ‘Get Lost’ means ‘take me, I’m yours.”

For all the mythological flaws in Disney’s film, it still manages to be a great movie and an ok introduction to Greek mythology. But it is American, and that comes with some political ramifications. While researching the film, I learned that Disney initially wanted to hold a premier at the Pnyx hill in Athens, an ancient and holy place which is also one of the earliest sites of democracy. The Greek public and government took this as an insult, and let’s be honest, it is. By coveting this space, Disney argues that its film, an inaccurate and Americanized version of Greek mythology, which is not religious, is as important as this crucial historic landmark and Greek identity. Disney wanted to buy that identity, to inject itself into that symbolism and thus dismiss all of it. In other words, it wanted to use this space as it uses the Hercules myth, as an image and story that belongs to everyone, but one which Disney claims some ownership over. It wanted to use the space like an attraction, like something you would see at Disneyland. You can understand why so many Greeks were angry, in fact, one newspaper called the Adesmevtos Typos called the film, “another case of foreigners distorting our history and culture just to suit their commercial interests”. Disney tries to justify that distortion by distancing history (and Greek identity) from its story. There are no Greek actors, and although it features a few real places in Greece, like Thebes, these places are set firmly in the past and are cartoonish, and therefore don’t belong to modern Greece. I don’t necessarily agree with this representation, but Disney has a reputation of making something fantastical, so it doesn’t have to be historical. The more problematic and obvious example of this is Pocahontas, which is technically based on a real person and events, but is completely distorted and Disney-fied. I highly recommend this video for more information on who Pocahontas was and why the racist and colonial rewrite of her life continues to persist. Suffice to say here, everything in that film is based on John Smith’s racist and sexist account, much of which he made up to make himself seem important. Again, like John Smith, Disney does not like facts, but it likes the appearance of them, the look of eras and people, not the complicated history.

“A little Dark, a Little Gloomy. And, as always, hey, full of dead people.”

I will give some credit to Disney when it comes to the appearance of mythology, as it does stay somewhat accurate in a few representations. For instance, in the first scene, where we see Hercules’ sort of baptism party, the camera pans across the different Gods and you can see how the animators interpreted myths into image. Athena is only on screen for a few moments, but it is clearly her, as are Aphrodite and Poseidon. These characters later appeared in Disney’s TV spinoff of Hercules, where their myths continued to grow. The film also had a huge impact on children like me, who were inspired to learn more about Hercules, only to realize how inaccurate Disney’s project is. In my first-year classics course in university, the professor showed us some images from the film, and talked about the few positives from its legacy. She also knew that many of us had come from a union of Disney and Percy Jackson, and tried to incorporate that into her discussion.

The modern application of myth will always be something I am interested in, even when it is detached from a real civilization. The reason I am more comfortable with this film than one like Pocahontas is because Pocahontas is a real person who suffered a great deal, and her life continues to be reframed by toxic and racist colonial rhetoric, and simplified and marketed by Disney. Again, Disney takes something accessible to all, history, and then tries to own it, without regarding the people who are already involved with that history and now have to deal with Disney’s attempted ownership and marketing schemes. Mythology, specifically Greek, is different to an extent, as Greek mythology is so well-known and prevalent to identities across the globe, constantly shifting. Because it spread to such an unpresented extent, these stories are equally Greek and other, something the Percy Jackson books explore at length.

I appreciate Hercules even more after watching the Christian mess that is the Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief film. 20th Century pictures had to do more with mythology than Disney did, as yes, they could change characters and names, but they also had to transition the Gods to a modern world, rather than vice versa. Unlike Disney’s fun cartoon, Percy Jackson takes place in the real world, and argues that mythological figures are real. Disney made the ancient seem modern, with only a slight ancient feel or aesthetic. Percy Jackson is the opposite, the modern seems ancient, and both are relevant rather than just the modern. That union boils up the troubling tension between mythology and religion, as these characters actively believe in the Greek Gods in modern America, which certain conservative group would not like. As a compromise, the Percy Jackson movie tries to dismantle polytheism by attaching it to Christianity. The Gods are more like angels in the film, and Hades is simply depicted as the Devil. He appears in flames multiple times, with horns, and his realm is a fiery pit of Hell, which has nothing to do with mythology. At least Disney interpreted the Underworld in a unique way, one that wasn’t entirely off.

Likewise, the Percy Jackson movie changes it’s villain, like Hercules does, to Hades, but then it doesn’t know what to do with him. So, it just makes him Satan, something modern audiences are already familiar with. Disney is not educational, but by comparison, it trusts its audience enough to show somewhat accurate mythological figures and events. That’s not always been the case, as Disney also had an early adaptation of the myth Hades and Persephone, a short titled The Goddess of Spring (1934), and it featured a stereotypical Devil. Disney has moved away from this Christian archetype just by treating mythology like an old fairy tale rather than an established religion, which Percy Jackson cannot.

I should note, Disney’s later mythology films have also been met with part celebration and criticism, as they represent but also merchandize cultures. I find that rather ironic given the storyline in Hercules, where Herc is uncomfortable with his face being plastered on action figures and vases, as he feels that this takes away from his actions and hurts his ‘good person’ status. Although the film makes a point to connect merchandise and capitalism with immoral distractions, the company behind the film does not.

“Willing to go the distance.”

I am certainly biased when it comes to Disney’s Hercules, as it remains one of my favourite animated films. It might be the only Greek myth film that I really enjoy, as other than this, we are stuck with the original Clash of the Titans, which is good, but these stories are capable of so much more. And yet I am both apprehensive and excited to see that Percy Jackson is now a Disney property, and that they are making a show for Disney+ not far from where I live. It promises to be accurate to the books, which are fairly accurate to the myths. I hope it’s incredible, I know it could be, but I am worried about the same issues. I think the Percy Jackson books do an incredible job of balancing history with myth, rather than separating the two, and I hope that transfers into this new project. Maybe it will inspire more people to go out and learn about Greek mythology, and the way its adaptations have changed alongside different cultures. It could be the start of a new mythic renaissance, one where people and directors seek out different stories from around the world, especially their own cultural stories, and make more with them, after doing serious research and involving people of those cultures. To continue the authorless oral tradition of storytelling through film, where the story belongs to all and respectfully to a specific place simultaneously. An ever-expanding echo of Gods and monsters, a cinematic hydra if you will. Hopefully that is good thing. If not, Hercules has taught us how to deal with a hydra situation.

Want to read more on Greek mythology film? Check out my earlier work on O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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