Trivia question: Name the last animated Disney film in which the main character had both a mother and father who lived to see the end credits.
You may have to go back a few years. Keeping families intact hasn’t exactly been a Disney strong point. In Hercules, however, the tale’s hunky hero belongs to not one, but two loving, enduring two-parent families. Disney’s 35th animated feature also makes terrific statements about perseverance, friendship, self-control, chivalry and the heroism of virtuous character. That’s the good news. The bad news is that such positive messages are combined with dark imagery and a muddled spirituality totally inappropriate for the younger end of the “children of all ages” continuum.
Born on Mount Olympus to Zeus and Hera, baby Hercules is welcomed into the family of gods. The one party-pooper is Hades, disgruntled god of the dead. When he learns that the child will grow up to thwart his evil plans, Hades orders him killed. The deed is done. Almost. Two bungling demons snatch Herc and sap his divine nature, but before they can finish the job, a mortal couple finds the infant, adopting him as their own.
Herc grapples with the awkwardness of adolescence, learns about his true identity and tries to earn his way back to Olympus by becoming a hero. Aided by his winged steed and a surly satyr named Phil (the lusty half man/half goat mentor of would-be heroes), he battles hideous beasts including, in an intense scene, the multi-headed Hydra. His exploits lead to instant celebrity. But when Herc mistakenly equates popularity with heroism, Zeus sets him straight (“Being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero”). That’s a great lesson for young viewers, especially in this age of rock stars, athletes and actors long on talent, but short on character.
Cupid’s arrow hits the mark when Herc meets Meg, a cynical beauty with a complicated past. She’s bitter. She’s anti-male. She’s also trapped in Hades’ debt. Meg tries to resist her feelings for Herc, but falls hopelessly in love with him. The pair proceed to make extreme sacrifices for one another. In fact, Herc ultimately declines immortality in order to remain on earth with his woman—a noble act, but a disquieting example for young Christians tempted to choose between holiness and hormones. Furthermore, wiggling hips and allusions to Meg’s other Aphroditic charms seem a bit immodest.
When Disney first announced it would revisit the legend of Hercules, parents braced themselves for a film awash in polytheism. After all, the ancient Greeks had a god or goddess for just about everything. Hermes. Aries. The Muses. But what makes things even worse is that this film teaches mythological “history” in a rousing three-part musical number called “The Gospel Truth.” Young viewers may be further confused by references to “praying to the gods” and Herc’s longing to “please the gods.” Whether intentional or not, Disney reduces Christianity to the level of folklore by blending spiritual counterfeits with biblical orthodoxy.
Hercules’ other Achilles’ heel involves Hades’ dreary Underworld. It’s populated by disembodied, tormented souls that float in the River of Death, deteriorating over time. Three witches (grim reapers called The Fates) share a single, mucous-covered eyeball, passing it back and forth as they gleefully snip the final threads of human lives. When Meg dies trying to save Herc, her soul enters the River of Death before it is rescued and returned to her body for a climactic “resurrection.” More than dark and ominous, it’s spiritually unhinged.
On June 18, 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention called for a boycott of Disney and its subsidiaries. A courageous move. The denomination responded to numerous Disney policies and products inconsistent with the Magic Kingdom’s reputation as a pro-family enterprise. Parents deciding to join the campaign may want to begin by giving Hercules the cold shoulder. Though artfully done, this occasionally inspiring motion picture includes significant weaknesses that keep it from going the distance.