After the successful but serious-minded Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney decided it was time for another rollicking comedy. The studio brought in directors John Musker and Ron Clements (from The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) for a reworking of the classic Heracles myth, cleaned up for wholesome family entertainment.
In Disney’s version, Zeus and Hera are the happily married parents of baby Hercules. Hades, the flame-haired ruler of the Underworld (played as a Hollywood agent by James Woods), wants a shot at Mount Olympus, but he’s warned that young Herc could be a future threat. The dark one dispatches bumbling demons Pain and Panic to do the deed, but the minions give the child too small a dose of a deadly potion, rendering the tyke mortal instead of dead.
Unable to keep Herc in the company of gods, Zeus leaves the boy in the care of a mortal couple. Hercules, who keeps his extraordinary strength, grows up an awkward “Jerkules,” unaware of his true identity until Zeus comes down for a father-son chat. The boy can only return to Olympus if he proves himself a “true hero.” Wisecracking satyr Philoctetes (call him Phil) is assigned as the wannabe hero’s trainer and personal manager, arranging fights with a cyclops, the Hydra and other foes.
An outraged Hades, learning that the boy is still alive, sends strong-willed beauty Megara (whose soul he owns) to learn the secret of Hercules’ strength. Plans go awry when Meg falls for the big lug. Between saving the world and saving the girl, Herc is going to have to learn what a “true hero” is really made of.
The film’s bright, angular animation, inspired by British caricaturist Gerald Scarfe, was a departure from Disney’s usual style. Another innovation was the use of a Gospel combo in place of the traditional Greek chorus, belting the show’s Alan Menken-penned tunes. More traditional was the presence of an all-star voice cast, including Woods, Rip Torn, Danny DeVito and Charlton Heston.
Riding the wave of Disney success stretching back to 1989’s The Little Mermaid, Hercules was an Olympic-sized hit, spawning a Saturday morning spinoff the following year.