Published July 1, 1997
Perhaps the most telling moment in Disney’s Hercules (directed by John Musker and Ron Clements) the latest in that company’s long succession of dreadful, vulgar and philistine cartoon movies, comes near the beginning with a musical recapitulation of Greek mythology (most of it garbled or deliberately altered to suit the use that Disney wants to make of it). This is rendered by dusky maidens in Grecian style gowns, supposedly come to life from a Greek vase to sing a gospel-style number whose refrain is “And that’s the Gospel truth” —which seems to be the hip, postmodern way of saying, “I just made it up.” It seems natural to believe that the Gospel itself would be, for these Disney redactors and musicians, true in exactly the same sense. Truth itself is a joke for them, which is why they have not the slightest compunction about making the radical alterations in the story they are telling for no other purpose than flattering the ignorance and self-satisfaction of their audience.
For even worse than the film’s utter disrespect for its ancient sources is its alteration of them entirely for the purpose of making “Herc” and his gal-pal “Meg” (i.e. Megara) and his manager and trainer “Phil” (i.e. Philoctetes) into a particularly mindless bunch of late 20th century American pop-culture addicts. The assumption here—also to be found in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame— is that no matter how exotic the material, everyone in the world, and everyone in history, is reducible to a late 20th century, overindulged American adolescent—someone exactly, in short, like the film’s intended audience—only with a few inexplicable affectations of difference. This is the very definition of philistinism: the inability to imagine any worldview other than one’s own.
More deeply depressing than the thing itself, however, is the fact that we as a culture seem not to care about exposing our children to such intellectual toxicity. With paternal pride I report my own 11 year old son’s judgment on the film which, he said, “mixed up the old stuff and the new stuff as if they were the same,” but this should not be difficult to understand. Children are not incapable of learning, along with the lesson that people in history, like people in other countries, were or are different from themselves, a certain amount of humility and curiosity, yet Disney wants them to understand not so much that the ancient Greeks were spoiled little consumerists like themselves, talking in slang and high fiving each other (only the very stupidest among them will believe this) as that it doesn’t matter what they really were—only that being a spoiled little consumerist and hip to fashion, the media and popular entertainment are all that counts in the world.
This phenomenon of popular culture is not unconnected with the fact that our schools have ceased to bother teaching children about other cultures (in spite of—or perhaps because of—the vogue for “multiculturalism” )—or even about our own when it included something other than postmodern playfulness. In the beginning, Charlton Heston’s voiceover is interrupted by the gospel gals saying that he is making the story “sound like Greek tragedy.” Heaven forbid! He turns the narration over to them by saying, “You go, girls.” Later on Herc and Meg’s first date, the former exclaims: “What a day: first that restaurant by the bay, then the play. That Oedipus, boy was that something! And I thought I had problems!” Of course, tragedy here is also reduced to a joke. All depiction of real sorrow, loss or pain (like reality generally) is banished from precincts haunted by the evil Disney spirit.
This is made apparent at the climax of the film when it seems that the beauteous Meg has saved both Herc and the world by giving up her own life, and Phil tells the hero: “There’s some things you just can’t change.”
“Oh yes I can!” says Hercules—and so, of course, he succeeds in bringing her back from the grave. As in the case of Wile E. Coyote and others who are forever blowing themselves up, death itself has no dominion in the cartoon world.
The film attempts to disarm us by making fun of itself and Disney. Pain and Panic are the comic sidekicks of the bad guy “Hades” (evil but cute!) and are described as “a couple of rodents looking for a theme park.” The commercial boom when Herc does become famous ( “From Zero to Hero” as the song puts it), with the merchandising of fast foods, action figures and sports sandals (Air Hercs), is apparently meant to show that the Mouse can make a joke at his own expense—not that the joke will cost the company a penny in its actual merchandising efforts. But when Herc meets his “famous” father Zeus and brags that “I’m the most famous person in all Greece. I’m an action figure,” it also offers the Disney moralists an opportunity to sell a classic bit of Disney sentimentality as Zeus replies: “I’m afraid that being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero.”
No kidding! Unfortunately, everything else in the film drives home an opposite lesson. What being a true hero involves, according to Zeus, is something vaguely to do with “looking in your heart” —a heart which hitherto has had nothing in it but the desire for adulation. Now, he apparently has the chance to sacrifice his own life for the sake of his Meg, but that all turns out to be a crock too. He is a god and therefore unkillable, so he gets back Meg with no price to be paid, defeats “Hades” and the adulation (and presumably the big-time marketing) continues unabated. Never mind, he made the sentimental gesture and so (Zeus tells him) he is now “a true hero.” Or at least as near to one as we shall ever see in a Disney production.