Why does "Hercules" miss the mark?

So much of my work and dialogue this semester seems to go back to the idea of stories; the tellers of tales, what they tell (or omit), and the purpose of sometimes deliberately re-storying events to offer an alternate perspective. Because of this immersion in the nature and importance of story, my already-analytically-inclined mind has been encountering all narratives outside of the classroom as objects of scrutiny. (Something very similar happened early in my education as an English major, when I had to teach myself how to stop analyzing everything I read). And, because I am also an unabashed nerdy oddball, one of the things I'm chewing on right now is Disney's 1997 Hercules.

*It's on my radar because the last time I was at the gym, I pulled up an epic Disney playlist on YouTube, and that meant I was watching scenes from the film, rather than just running along to the music like I usually do.

I had forgotten how deliberately the movie was attempting some very creative re-storying. The Destiny's Child/gospel muses literally reclaim the narrative from Moses (Charlton Heston is the opening narrator). Instead of a "classically" told story, the new narrators sing into the tale with passion and personality, and the rest of the film is filled with delightfully playful irreverence, even as the adaptation tackles some deep, emotional issues--much in the way that "canon" in the classroom is expected to, since "it is assumed that great storytellers tell us something important about
living as human beings and about perseverance" (Joseph, 2010, p. 162).

This adaptation, then, blends canon with deliberate, multi-cultural re-storying by presenting a work of "classic" western myth adapted to modern voices. Such re-storying  is powerful, and, I think, necessary, if we want to encourage our students to "awaken to the moral and intellectual possibilities within their own lives" (Joseph, 2010, p. 152), while at the same time developing the understanding that stories have power, and how a story is told can offer alienation or inclusion. All adaptations, then, offer a form of re-storying, since they are all attempts to see a pre-existing tale differently.

Why, then, does Disney's Hercules fall so flat?

The premise is sound, I think; re-storying a Greek myth in order to bring relevance and connection to a diverse modern audience is a challenge that many teachers approach every year when they teach Homer's Odyssey. Finding ways to connect "the classics" to modern lives is vital for anyone who wants to teach any element of the traditional canon. So why, then, is this film so flawed and forgettable?

I think there's a lot to unpack, but the biggest factor that jumps out at me right now is Hercules misses the audience mark. The re-storying attempts to build something for everyone out of the famous Greco-Roman strongman, but despite the clumsy, adolescent beginnings of the character, the narrative is a fairly adult one; Hercules is fighting to be reunited with his parents while rescuing a woman from sexual assault (a woman who sold her soul to save her lover), and no amount of badly timed juvenile humor can make that a plot that fully resonates with young viewers.  At the same time, the fart jokes and stupidity of some of the characters make it a hard movie for adults to connect with, despite the story line.

The more I think about it, the more age and audience seems to be at play here. Perhaps a re-storying of a younger Greek hero might have been better received. Perseus, for example, is very much an adolescent hero, even when he saves his damsel. In fact, that could be part of the success of Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief;  Riordan adapts the myth of Perseus in this first novel in (I believe) a successfully youthful and modern way, re-storying the narrative and pulling young readers deep into pursuit of other stories from antiquity.

Maybe, too, the timing was off. Maybe Hercules could have overcome its flaws if it had been released ten years later. Or maybe it will never quite hit the mark. I wish it did; I am passionate about the power of adaptations, and I love when classic stories are re-storied to make them matter to modern readers. There are often deep truths and complicated issues at the heart of folklore, but sometimes the old forms make it hard for new readers to find resonance. I wish someone else (or even Disney again) would return to animated re-storying of mythology; I think there is so much potential in the ideas behind Hercules, and I would love to see those ideas more fully realized.


References:

Joseph, P. B. (2010). Connecting to the Canon. In Cultures of Curriculum (pp. 150–173). Taylor and Francis.

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