The Tragedy Of Hercules

Did you ever see Disney’s Hercules? You might want to see it again sometime because I’m about to give you a new perspective on it. I’m also about to talk a lot about the story – so consider yourself warned if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to hear any spoilers.Hit the jump to read on as I dissect the film and reveal the true tragedy in the story of Disney’s Hercules.Hercules is a solid animated feature that has its roots in Greek mythology, but tweaks the story a bit. In Disney’s telling Hercules is the son of Zeus (ruler of the gods and Mount Olympus) and Hera who are just thrilled to be parents. Less thrilled is Hades, Zeus’s brother and Lord of the Underworld.

Already bitter about past disputes with Zeus (which are only hinted at), Hades is particularly riled that the Fates have prophesised that Hades plans to overthrow Zeus will be thwarted by Hercules. So Hades orders his two minions Pain and Panic to steal baby Hercules from Mount Olympus and kill him. They manage to fly in, steal Hercules and take him down to Earth – realm of the mortals. Once on the ground they feed him a potion to make him mortal with the intent to kill him once Hercules is mortal. But they fail for two reasons. Firstly, they’re startled by the approach of two peasants – a husband and wife – and they drop the potion bottle just before Hercules drinks the last drop. Because of this Hercules was turned mortal, but retained his Godly strength and was able to fight off the two demons. But being mortal, baby Hercules could not return to Mount Olympus and is adopted and raised by the peasant couple while Zeus and Hera can only look down at their son from the sky.

So that’s the first part of the story. From here on the story centres on Hercules, who faces many obstacles and must eventually thwart Hades and save Meg, the woman he falls in love with. Yet for all that Hercules goes through – both physical and mental – I argue that the characters who suffer the most hardship in the entire film are Hercules parents, Zeus and Hera.

When Zeus runs in too late to find his son gone, he cries out and his anger and sorrow resounds in the sky with lighting strikes – lightning being Zeus’ iconic power. From this point on thunderstorms become symbolic of Zeus being distressed. Although Hercules becomes our lead character, in that first part of the film it is Zeus and Hera who I felt the most sympathy for. The solemn singing of the chorus hit the feeling home: “Zeus and Hera wept/because their son could never come home/they’d have towatch their precious baby grow up from afar.”

The idea that these parents are separated from their child, yet can look upon him from Mount Olympus as though through a one-way mirror is just heartbreaking. For eighteen years Zeus and Hera can see their son, but they can’t interact with him. Young Hercules doesn’t even know who his real parents are.

It’s not until Hercules visits a temple and prays to a giant statue of Zeus that son and father are finally reunited. Through the statue, Zeus is able to explain to his son that Hercules is the son of Gods and must become a true hero in order to re-attain his God status and be able to join his parents on Mount Olympus. And so Hercules makes it his mission to train to become a hero and one day return home.

Throughout Hercules’ journey we are reminded of Zeus and Hera’s presence; that they are always watching their son. When Phil initially refuses to train Hercules, a bolt of lightning quickly changes his mind. More dramatic still, when Hercules is fighting the Hydra, rain and thunder appear as Hercules becomes overwhelmed by the multi-headed monster and is about to be killed by it. The storm reminds us that Zeus is watching his son face mortal peril – yet he’s unable to do anything about it. For the sake of argument let’s say that even if Zeus were to shoot a lighting bolt to kill the Hydra it would likely kill Hercules too.

Finally, Hercules defeats Hades attack on Mount Olympus – but Meg (the mortal woman he loves) is crushed and killed by a falling pillar. Enraged, Hercules fights his way to the Underworld, confronts Hades and retrieves Meg’s soul from the River Styx and restores her to life. In risking his life to save Meg’s, Hercules proves himself a true hero and is able to return to Mount Olympus. And yet, as Hercules stands between the mortal realm and Mount Olympus, Hercules realises his dilemma: he can either be with his God parents or be with the mortal woman he loves. Hercules choses to become mortal once more and stay with Meg.

So we come to the true tragedy of Disney’s Hercules. While the film presents the ending in an exuberantly happy fashion, emphasising that evil has been defeated and true love been found – I cannot get over the fact that Zeus and Hera have been seriously jilted. They wait eighteen years to be re-united with their son and just as they’re on the verge on being a family once more, Hercules – completely unaware of his parent’s woe – choses to abandon them and return to Earth with a woman he’d only just met. There is no happy ending for Zeus and Hera. They lose their son, watch him grow up for eighteen years, are teased with the prospect of being re-united and finally are rejected by their son. That would have to hurt.

The interesting thing about this is that the anguish of Hera and Zeus is entirely in the background of the storytelling. But as I’ve shown, this element of the story is still there. Not obvious, but there. Directed and written by John Musker and Ron Clements, these guys are likely too accomplished storytellers to have included this tragic side of the film by accident. Indeed, previous films directed/written by Ron and John have dealt with similar parental woes. In The Little Mermaid King Tritan is imposes strict rules on her daughter Ariel, but confidently worries about her and whether he’s being a good father. Meanwhile in Aladdin the Sultan worries for Jasmine’s future and her inability to find a husband while he ignores that the greatest threat to her future is his own Grand Vizier, Jafar.

And yet, while this element of Hercules’ story is certainly not a mishap, there’s dissonance between Hercules story and his parents story. There’s no acknowledgement of the selfishness of Hercules’ choice to go with Meg and the film appears to end on a blissfully happy note. I wonder whether John and Ron (or someone else on the story team) wished to have a hidden dark side to an apparently happy ending for observant viewers to appreciate. Or are they trying to gloss over this unpleasant story point? Or perhaps it truly was an oversight when conceiving the final scene. For me, Hercules’ remains a good (if not great) film with many wonderful animated performances that ends up being a tragic story – and not the heroic tale is outwardly seems to be.

Article image from Disney Animation Archive.