Another one of my favorite childhood movies was Hercules. As a young kid, I was a little obsessed with Greek mythology and would check out all the books my library had on it. I loved it and spent hours reading about the myths, legends, and genealogies. When I saw Disney’s Hercules for the first time, I immediately knew that it wasn’t accurate…I mean, Hera hated Hercules (it wasn’t her son…just one of Zeus’s “couldn’t keep it in his pants with mortal women” children). But, I loved the movie, especially the songs…I mean, it’s just about every red-head girl’s dream to have the voice of a soulful, passionate, black woman. But, as with all Disney movies, there are lessons to be learned with Hercules, lessons that will stay with you forever.
First, before I get into any songs, I just want to say how much Greek there is stuffed into this movie! The writers tried their hardest to insert culture, stereotypes, everything into it: “since they put the ‘pit’ in Pita bread”, “wanna buy a sun-dial,” “call IX-I-I,” “I haven’t seen more love in a room since Narcissus discovered himself.” I could go on and on. Every time I watch it, I pick up even more. And one of the little nuances I never realized until I was an adult was the counting issue. In the movie, a lot of times characters will say, “three words” than speak two, etc. Well, that’s because they are listing how many Greek words it would take to say that. For instance, Phil tells Hercules, “Two words: I am retired.” But in Greek, it is Είμαι συνταξιούχος. Two words.
They also do a pretty decent job of the mythology (with a few huge mistakes for creative license). In any Mount Olympus scene, you can very easily name all the Gods and Goddesses drawn according to their obvious characteristics: Dionysus is pink and has a wine glass, Aphrodite has a nice figure and blonde hair, Athena has a warriors helmet and an owl, so on and so forth. They include the Titans, even though have who they are incorrect. They include different heroes, even though they were all in different time periods, some long after Hercules. They include the Fates, the River Styx, and Cerberus for the underworld. They even try to incorporate the different adventures and quests that Hercules went on very subtly! But, again, take it all with a grain of salt!
Beginning of the Movie // Gospel Truths I, II, and III
In the very beginning scene, the narrator brings forth to light the most poignant theme of the movie, “What is the measure of a true hero?” It kind of resonates with The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s theme, “Who is the monster and who is the man?” However, he is interrupted and the muses, Goddesses of the Arts and Proclaimers of Heroes take over the narration. Well, it is their dominion. And, they are black, soul singers. Awesome! They give the background of Zeus and how he organized the world and stopped the Titans. We then see a party for the baby Hercules. Hades doesn’t like the baby, because he is upset with his position in the Underworld and wants to take over Olympus. This never happens or is mentioned in the real mythology, but God of the Underworld makes for a good villain. After being humiliated again at the party, Hades goes back to the Underworld and meets with Fates to see if Hercules will stand in his plan of a hostile takeover. They reveal to him that Hercules will. So, Hades decides to get rid of Hercules. But, as he asks his minions, “How do you kill a God?” You can’t…you have to make him mortal. So, he sends his minions, Pain and Panic, to kidnap Hercules, give a potion to turn him mortal, and kill him. But, they were interrupted by an old mortal couple, and Hercules never finished the potion. The last drop he didn’t drink allowed him to retain his god-like strength, and he was able to stop Pain and Panic (who had morphed into snakes) as a baby! And, that is one of the legends of Hercules! But in the last Gospel Truth, the muses mention how Zeus and Hera had to watch Hercules grow up from afar because only gods are allowed on Mount Olympus. As a parent, that hit me–how devastated would I feel if I couldn’t raise Rhys myself, but could only watch someone else do it for me?
I Can Go the Distance
Years pass, and Hercules is a scrawny looking, pariah of a teen. But, remember, he is super strong…and that strength is the reason he is a pariah. He always breaks everything and reeks destruction wherever he goes because he can’t control his strength–everyone hates him for it. His adopted father tries to cheer him up, but Hercules says, “Sometimes I feel like I don’t really belong here. Like I’m supposed to be someplace else.” This kind of relates back to Tarzan and the motif of adopted families and different cultures. But this song is more than just that. Hercules believes he has a bigger purpose, somewhere he belongs and something he can do. The first part of the song is more of a hope and a dream. He wants to believe he belongs somewhere else because he doesn’t fit in here. This can have a few Christian overtones: we believe in the Kingdom of our Father in Heaven. He is waiting to receive us with open arms. But, anyone who has ever believed there is something bigger and better for them or that they would fit in better with another group or culture can relate to this song. One line in the song is, “I will go most anywhere to feel like I belong.” How many of us wouldn’t do the same? The feeling of being accepted is common in everyone. We long to be accepted. We long to be like others. We long to feel approved of and validated. So does Hercules, especially because he is different from everyone else.
He returns home and his adopted parents told him that he was found as a baby, with a medallion of the symbol of the Gods around his neck. Hercules then decides to go to the Temple of Zeus to pray to the gods to see if they have answers. Again, some Christian undertones here…we pray to our Father for guidance, to see what His plan for us is. Hercules begins singing again, only this time, he is more determined. He has a plan and has more power in his determination to go most anywhere to feel like he belongs. He can do it and will do it. My college actually had this song be the theme of one of our school years, to support students and let them believe they can do anything as long as they have determination and do their best.
Well, Hercules gets to the Temple of Zeus and starts praying. Then Zeus comes down in the form of the statue and tells Hercules the story of his birth and kidnapping. He then tells Hercules that he can rejoin his family in Olympus if he becomes a true hero. So, he goes off to seek Philoctetes, or Phil, to be trained as a hero.
One Last Hope
Phil is a grouchy old retired hero-trainer. He refuses to be Hercules’s teacher because all the other heroes he trained, Odysseus, Theseus, Perseus, Jason, Achilles all eventually were defeated and died (well, Hercules was a drunken fool tricked by his jealous wife into a wearing a poisoned cloak that tormented him so much, he built a pyre and burned himself to death, but that’s not Disney!). Hercules asks Phil if he ever had a dream that he wanted so badly. Phil said that he wanted to train a hero that was so loved, that the gods would put him in the stars. But, he says, “Dreams are for rookies.” He had been disappointed so much, that he gave up on his dream. Hercules was determined though. Phil didn’t believe. He had no hope. This served as an archetypal warning–you will turn into a grouchy, isolated, cynical person if you give up your dreams and hopes. Finally, after a lightning bolt sent from Zeus, Phil agrees to train Hercules. The entire song is a little cynical–he is giving Hercules his best shot, and claiming he is Phil’s last hope. But, Phil still isn’t convinced. But, as the song (and years) go on, Phil gets a little more confident. It is always nice to have someone, even someone as innocent and naive as Hercules (or Kimmy Schmidt also comes to mind) to help you restore faith in yourself and others.
After training is over, they decide to go to Thebes (compared to New York) to become a hero. On their way, Hercules saves Meg from a Water Guardian (a seductive centaur, which is a throwback to the myths as most centaurs raped women, even Hercules’s wife was almost raped by a centaur). But, what they don’t realize is that Meg is actually working for Hades, who owns her. Hades finds out that Pain and Panic never actually killed baby Hercules and time is running out before his plan to take over Olympus is put into action.
Meanwhile, Hercules and Phil arrive in Thebes and everyone is cynical of Hercules claiming to be a hero. They are sign seekers–they want someone who as already proven themselves to be their hero. Hercules says, “How can I prove I’m a hero if they don’t give me a chance?” How many of us have been burned or denied our dreams because we aren’t given chances? Justin felt that way after he graduated college and couldn’t get a job for a few months because he didn’t have any experience (that’s a rant for another post). He kept saying how if employers would just give him a test-run, a chance, they’d see how much worth Justin is and what he could bring to the company. Well, Hades sets up a trap for Hercules with the hydra, Meg leading him there. The townsfolk follow. But, Hercules defeats the hydra.
Zero to Hero
Just like One Last Hope, this is another montage. It shows how Hercules is slowly becoming a hero of renowned. He defeats different monsters, saves people, is paid for it, and becomes famous. There are a lot of Greek jokes in this song and a lot of allusions to the quests that the real mythical Hercules did. Hades is throwing all of these monsters to try and defeat him. But, the moral of this song is zero to hero. You can be a no-one, but become a some-one. Think about all the rags-to-riches stories we have in history. It can happen. Think of Malala, think of the Slumdog Millionaire, think of George Washington and other famous people. It can happen. You just have to believe!
Well, Hercules visits his dad again wanting to return to Olympus. Zeus tells him that he isn’t a true hero yet, Hercules has to look inside his heart to figure out how to be a true hero. Again, that is an important theme. Becoming successful and lauded is great and all, but it won’t make us the best we can be. We need to be reflective and be the best person we can be. Hercules is upset and needs to de-stress, so Meg takes him on a date, with Hades’s command to find out what Hercules’s weakness is.
I Won’t Say I’m in Love
But, with all Disney movies, there is a love story. Hercules and Meg begin to fall for each other. Before they can enjoy their first kiss, Phil interrupts and drags Hercules away to keep training. Now, Meg had sold her soul to Hades in the first place to save the life of her love. But, he betrayed her by running off with another woman, leaving Meg brokenhearted and in the clutches of Hades. So, she’s already had a lot of bad experience with guys. This song is her inner turmoil of trying to figure out if she actually does like Hercules and what to do about it. I dated/liked/crushed some jerks before I met Justin, so my heart was pretty guarded when we became friends. I’m sure there are many of us girls who have been the same, whether it be disappointing relationships, abusive relationships, no relationships and we didn’t want to be hurt again. It can be so vulnerable to allow yourself to feel love for another.
Meg finally admits that she does care for Hercules. Then, Hades comes asking her what his weakness is and she claims he doesn’t have one, but at the same time, it’s pretty obvious her feelings for him. So, Hades decides to use Meg against Hercules one last time, insinuating that Meg is Hercules’s weakness. And, as we all know with love and movies, especially hero movies, the way to harm the hero or get them to do what you want, is to hurt and/or threaten their loved ones.
Now, Phil had caught wind of this and tried to warn Hercules who got mad at Phil. Phil left. Hades put his plan into action. He appears before Hercules and bargained Meg’s life for his powers. Hercules, of course, agrees, but is brokenhearted when Hades reveals that Meg had worked for him the entire time. He leaves them both crying, frees the Titans, and successfully attacks Mount Olympus while sending a giant cyclops to get rid of Hercules. When Hercules sees, he decides to go against the Cyclops, knowing full well that he doesn’t have the strength to defeat him. He was doing what was right. It was his responsibility to protect the city and he was being a hero. Meg gets Phil to try and help him. Phil tells Hercules that dreaming isn’t for rookies, but “Giving up is for rookies.” Phil gives another lesson: No matter how hard it seems, don’t give up! Hercules is able to slyly defeat the cyclops, but Meg gets crushed by a column trying to save Hercules from being crushed by it. She is dying, but tells Hercules, “People do crazy things when they’re in love.” Hercules knows that Meg loves him and takes that to help him in saving the gods at Olympus. But, Hades escapes and Meg dies. Of course, true love comes into play in this movie. Phil tells Hercules, “There are even somethings the gods can’t change,” talking about Meg’s death. But, mad with love, Hercules says, “Yes, I can.”
A True Hero
Love conquers all. You don’t mess with heroes when you take one of their loved ones. It is pretty archetypal. Many movies shows heroes becoming more powerful with righteous vengeance. True love is willing to sacrifice anything. Hercules is willing to sacrifice his life to save the life of his true love. Just as the Fates are about to cut his life thread, he reaches Meg, proves he is a true hero because of the self-sacrifice, and turns into a God. Hades is defeated, Meg returns to life, and Hercules is brought up to Olympus. Zeus congratulates him saying, “A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.” Hercules then decides that he’d rather be with Meg than an immortal God. He didn’t believe that an immortal life was better than living one life with his true love, Meg. So he gives up his immortality to live with Meg.
A Star is Born
This is the ending song. Everyone is happy, everyone is saved. It is technically the credit song, and another Gospel-ish song. But, there are a few lyrics that prove these lessons of true love and being a true hero (accomplishing want you want).