There are two main reasons why all classicists should watch Disney's Hercules. Firstly, because for future generations of classicists, this will, quite possibly, have been their first introduction to anything from the ancient world and secondly, because the music is ace (what can I say, I'm a sucker for a good show tune).
The style of the animation in Hercules is suppoed to evoke the style of Greek vases, though I have to confess it looks a little odd to me. 'Hercules' is actually the Roman name for this hero - the Greek is Herakles. Everyone else's names are Greek though ('Meg' being short for 'Megara').
We hear the deep, serious voice of Charlton Heston, assuring us that this is indeed a story of Long Ago and Far Away by sounding cool and mysterious, then launch into the first number, in which five of the (nine) Muses introduce us to Ancient Greece and the Greek gods.
(I have to confess, I'm always a little uncomfortable with the refrain about how they're singing 'the gospel truth'. It strikes me as a bit disrespectful towards Christianity, and it's not at all appropriate to Greek religion, which was not dogmatic and which always allowed for multiple, contradictory stories about the same hero. But that may just be me being over-sensitive).
We're introduced to Zeus and Hera as Hercules' parents, and as husband and wife. Oddly enough, Disney leaves out the detail that they're also brother and sister. In the World According to Disney, Hercules is the son of Zeus and Hera, both gods, not the result of a liason between Zeus and Alcmene. This leaves them with a bit of a problem - how can Hercules be half-mortal without a mortal parent?
A Disney movie also needs a bad guy, so enter Hades, who is much more interesting to watch than any of the others because he's much funnier. When power over the cosmos was handed out, Zeus got the sky, Poseidon got the sea and Hades got the underworld and, in this version, he is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a bit miffed. He is assisted by Pain and Panic (A variant of Those Two Guys) and the Fates (who assure him that indoor plumbing has a future).
The plot of the movie is basically the invention of the Disney writers, though they draw on elements of Hercules' mythology. However, none of the major plot elements from the film come from ancient myths, and they have more in common with Disney's usual basic plot elements; young guy undergoes rite of passage type experience in which he defeats the bad guy and gets the girl (see also Aladdin). This is presumably because the Disney corporation feels that extra-marital affairs, spousal homicide, man-consuming fire and a whole lot of dung are unsuitable for their tender audiences.
So Disney's Hercules is found by Alcmene and Amphitryon, having survived Pain and Panic's attempt to poison him, which has left him mortal (i.e. not glowing any more - all gods glow, apparently) but supernaturally strong. This would presumably be fine if he wasn't also very clumsy, but his tendency to knock buildings down has made him an outcast, so he asks Mum and Dad why he's 'different' and why he dreams about people cheering his name (other than the obvious vanity). They explain that they found him with a medallion showing 'the symbol of the gods' (a bolt of lightning - not actually 'the symbol of the gods', but it would be associated with Zeus). So off he goes to a temple of Zeus to pray for an answer.
Herc wanders off through the rain and up a hill to a temple that looks a little bit like the Athenian Parthenon, where, magically, he finds the lost statue of Zeus from Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (see Wikipedia). Maybe this is why its lost - because some fool stole it from the town of Olympia and stuck it on top of a hill...
A very old and fuzzy photo of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, from a school trip from many years ago. That's me in the middle, pretending to be Zeus. Don't ask.
As soon as Herc has finished his prayer, the statue comes to life, starts talking to him, and tells him he's actually its own son. Strangely, Hercules does not assume that he ate a dodgey mushroom, but buys the whole story. I think I'd worry about anyone who cheerfully accepted the information that they're the son of the chief god that quickly, thought of course, it does explain his super strength. I can't quite make out whether the statue stands up or not - if it stood up in its own temple it would break the roof, but maybe the new temple is taller.
Zeus reunites Hercules with Pegasus, the flying horse who was given to him as a child (this is bound to annoy Bellerophon, who more usually rides Pegasus). Zeus tells Hercules that if he becomes a true hero, he can become immortal again and join the other gods on Mount Olympus, and sends him to Philoctetes for training. Its a good thing Herc doesn't go to see the better known Philoctetes, who was a man who left with the Greeks to fight the Trojan War but was left behind on the island of Lemnos because he'd been bitten by a snake and the wound was too smelly.
This is an entirely new Philotetes, but he does behave much more like a character from Greek mythology than the rest - a typical satyr, he's a pervert who spies on naked women, who are then forced to turn into trees to avoid him.
Then there's a Training Montage! By the end of it, Hercules is about four times as big and muscly as he was at the start.
Finally, we meet Meg, one of Disney's best heroines (if we overlook her ridiculous figure). Surprsingly and somewhat disturbingly, Disney have apparently decided that rape is far too big a part of Greek mythology to leave out, though they leave it at attempted rape and they swap Hercules' second wife, Deianeira, for Meg, but this is probably the closest the film gets to actual Greek myth. Meg even explains what happened to Hercules, who doesn't understand, and tells him Philoctetes will explain it to him later. I bet a lot of parents loved that.
Meg, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern girl and has a fantastic conviction that all men are worthless, making even more cool and snarky than Princess Jasmine. Pegasus is really, really jealous of the attention Hercules gives her, which might lead one to worry about their relationship...
Phil takes Hercules to Thebes, which was a somewhat unfortunate city according to ancient mythology. Meg has soldher soul to Hades and is working with Pain and Panic to do Hercules in, so they lure him into a fight with the Hydra (actually one of the Twelve Labours: see here). I like Hercules' solution here, it's very cool.
Then there's another montage! Leading to my favourite lines:
Hades: 'I've got 24 hours to get rid of this bozo... and you are wearing HIS MERCHANDISE?!'
Hercules: 'I'm a action figure!'
And my third favourite, the song lyric in which two Muses argue over how to pronounce 'vase'.
The montage includes images from the some of the Twelve Labours, like the boar and the lion, all put on vases, which is a nice touch. Still no dung, though. Love seeing Hercules posing for a vase painting wearing the lion skin as well (he is frequently shown wearing this in ancient art, its his main distinguishing feature).
There's some slushy stuff between Meg and Hercules, prompting Meg to sing her song, one of Disney's best romantic songs - 'It's too cliche, I won't say I'm in love' etc.
As the plot starts to work towards its conclusion, we seen Hercules give up his strength for Meg, only to find out he's been betrayed - very tragic, very Greek. (Yes I know, Greek tragedies often had happy endings, it's Blogger's artistic licence, OK?!). Although the loss of strength thing is actually kinda Biblical. Hercules is willing to let others die to save Meg, but the film, oddly enough, doesn't look into the implications of that.
The conclusion involves the Titans capturing the Olympian gods, because all Disney movies have to have a BIG conclusion. Literally. The bad guys always suddenly becomes a giant, or a giant creautre, or calls up a giant creature to do bad things. I have never understood why Disney feels this is so essential to the climx of a movie, but there you go. I guess its the kiddie version of lots of explosives. Hercules also grabs hold of a tornado. Hmm.
I love the depiction of the underworld in this movie by the way. Its suitably gloomy and spooky and huge and empty, just like it should be. Not a nice place. Hercules gets a very cool katabasis (journey down to the underworld) in this movie, much cooler than his usual task of retreiving Cerberus. Here, he goes down to get Meg back (who has been remarkably cleanly crushed to death), more like Orpheus. The effect of the river, striping away his youth and killing him, is pretty creepy too.
All ends well, though, because in the World According to Disney, if you sacrifice your life to save someone else, this is what makes you a true hero, because the test of a hero is the strength of his heart. This would sound pretty weird to an ancient Greek. They told stories about a woman who sacrificed her life for her husband, but, generally speaking, they weren't very into self-sacrifice. As far as mythological heroes were concerned, what made you a true hero was killing a very very large number of people, preferably your enemies. Killing monsters would also do, but was not essential.
This being Disney, however, it works a treat and Hercules gets to be a god and goes all glow-y. However, he decides he'd rather stay mortal and be with Meg - a truly heroic choice, considering he's seen what the underworld is like. How her crushed body is repaired is also a story left untold.
For some mysterious reason, Disney didn't do a sequel covering the rest of the story, in which Hercules is driven mad and murders Meg and all their children. Strange, that.
Hercules while temporarily a god - note glowyness