The strategies used to “lighten up” the Herakles legend (DeDisnification, Part 3B)
Hercules’ place in the Disney animated film studio’s chronology comes following The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas. Both of these films were criticized for being too dark, serious, and generally inappropriate for young audiences, so the studio decided to do something lighter. How they landed on the myth of Herakles (Ἡρακλῆς) as the right vehicle to accomplish this boggles the mind: in order to do any justice at all to the tales you’d have to go very dark indeed.
The tale of Herakles is an unhappy one from the start: although it’s often been Bowdlerized, Zeus (Ζεύς) disguising himself as Alkmene’s (Ἀλκμήνη) husband to get into her bed can only be described as rape. R-rated Excalibur contains such a scene for Arthur’s conception and it’s hardly Disney material. Next, Hera (Ἥρα) gets Eileithyia (Εἰλείθυια), the goddess of childbirth, to attempt to prevent Herakles from ever being born: Eileithyia sat at the door with her arms and legs crossed, thus staying the birth, and which would have ultimately killed both mother and child. But Alkmene’s handmaiden Galinthias (Γαλινθιάς) tricked her, shouting “a son is born!” Surprised, Eileithyia jumped to her feet so releasing her hold on Alkmene’s womb, so she could finally give birth. Of course the goddess was furious at being tricked and transformed Galinthias into a polecat.
When he is born, Alkmene leaves Herakles in the wilderness to die so that she may escape Hera’s wrath—an example of ancient victim blaming—which he manages to survive with help from his divine sibling(s). Then Hera sends serpents to kill the infant.
And this continues to be the dominant feature throughout Herakles’ life, and the madness she causes in him during which he kills his children, a couple of his brothers’, and possibly his wife is just the icing on the hate cake Hera bakes for her husband’s bastard son. And even apart from the trouble brought on him because of his divine birth, Herakles is also a hothead—Hera has nothing to do with him murdering Linus (Λῖνος), or lopping the noses and ears off the Orchomenian (Ὀρχομένιος) tribute collectors, thus precipitating a war in which his foster father dies. He’s a monster slayer, but also leaves a bloody trail of homicides in his wake. He’s also sexually voracious, and for that matter, omnivorous—Philoktetes (Φιλοκτήτης), much altered in the Disney version—is much more than a pal in the myths, and was actually one of the demigod’s several male lovers.
So, although simply choosing a more light-hearted tale would seem a much better choice, Disney wades directly into this minefield. And then, in order to make this myth fit the bill, they essentially gut it, which is why the matter I dealt with in Part 3A was so lengthy. There are some specific strategies they seem to have applied: the first revolves around simply making fun of the myths, the second is equating heroism with modern sports, and the last is applying Judeo-Christian cosmology and morals to the tale.
It seems overall that Disney chose an approach that was snarky and reductive: Hermes (Ἑρμῆς) appears as a caricature of Paul Shaffer/ the FTD logo, the Muses (Μοῦσαι) are a Motown/ Gospel girl group, Pegasus (Πήγασος) thinks he’s a dog, several of the characters toss out Borscht-Belt one liners, the comedy relief is both unneeded, as the film is nearly never serious, and goofier than ever, Roman and Greek elements are conflated, the Easter eggs fly thick and fast, and Thebes (Θῆβαι) is presented as an ancient New York, complete with Yiddish quipping. All this does indeed have the effect of keeping the film light, but it also means that we have zero investment in anything that’s happening. Instead these larger-than-life gods, heroes, and deeds are made small, safe, and perhaps worthy of an occasional sympathetic chuckle.
Professional sports fame was chosen as the corollary to heroism in Greek myth. This again is pretty far off base—product endorsements like Air-Herc sandals ring false as a reward for doing in the monsters that are terrorizing the countryside. Yes, of course I understand that this does not represent true heroism, and that that’s their point, but their point is not well made. Everyone takes to calling Hercules “Wonderboy”, itself a reference to the baseball film, The Natural. The all-too-familiar training montage is employed, including a phoned-in Mr.-Miyagi-crane-kick scene, and backed by the song, Go the Distance, which is pretty clearly a dress rehearsal for “I’ll Make a Man out of You”.
Next, Haides (Ἁιδης) is presented as being a toga-wearing version of a cartoonishly evil Satan: he plots to overthrow Zeus, he makes deals (the deal Haides made with Herakles regarding Kerberos (Κέρβερος), which I mentioned in the previous article, was a rare exception in the myths), his head is on fire, everything around him is decorated with skulls, and he enjoys slurping worms and torturing his henchmen. His underworld is a gloomy place full of tormented souls—in short: it’s hell. And it contrasts in black-and-white-morality fashion with the cloud palace of Olympus (Ὄλυμπος), inhabited by glowing, floating folk; a gate with St. Peter standing guard would not feel out of place here. And finally, the idea that self sacrifice is the only true heroism appears, as it does nearly nowhere in Greek myth.
The one bright spot in the film to me was Megara (Μέγαρα “Meg”), who is perhaps the most real female person in any Disney movie. Sure, she’s a bit of a femme fatale, but her response to Hercules when he finds her in Nessus’ (Νέσσος) clutches is brilliant:
Hercules: Aren’t you… a damsel in distress?
Meg: I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this. Have a nice day.
Unlike the wry remarks the other characters bandy about, hers land:
Meg: I’m a big tough girl. I tie my own sandals and everything.
Unfortunately, not only does the film fail the Bechdel test—as most from the studio do—she’s also alone in every regard: none of the other characters are ones we remotely care about.
Some will no doubt say that all this is just a reimagining; that the recontextualizations¹ are meant to make sense of these myths for a modern audience, and the simplifications do the same for a younger audience. But none of that is true. This is a self-indulgent and empty film, where pop culture references stand in for real comedic writing. Jason and the Argonauts, released in 1963, even though it was rated G, and its effects are quite crude compared to today’s, contained a much greater sense of the peril and wonder of the myths.
Read Subsequent Articles in this Series
Read Previous Articles in this Series
- See the novella A Dozen Tough Jobs for a decent recontextualization of the Herakles myth in the Depression-era South.