Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.
Moving right along from 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, we have Hercules from the very next following year. For the nineties being the era of "girl power" and for there being so much focus from Disney on giving different traits to the princesses (Ariel's spirit, Belle's intelligence, Mulan's physical abilities, etc.), the decade also brought plenty of male characters to the Disney bunch. And that's good: we need both the guys and the gals with all their good traits in fiction and in life.
I would make a comment about how the emphasis with Hercules on physical strength is different from the emphasis for the princesses, except that Mulan came out the following year and Mulan also went through fight training to become her own type of hero. Interestingly, Mulan and Hercules start off on flip sides. Hercules, though he becomes stronger, starts off already physically strong; his journey is learning what it is to be a real hero. Mulan already knows what it is to be a hero: that's what drove her to take her father's place in the war--her journey was more physical, in learning how to push herself to learn a new type of skill set.
Hercules starts off a little blind. Hopefully that isn't too much of a stereotype there, but then again, his story is just a hero's journey story, so it's all archetype, anyway. Stereotype, archetype, what's the difference, after all? Hercules is born to the highest place, even higher than princesses like Aurora and Snow White. He isn't a prince; he's a god, the son of Zeus, born to live on Mount Olympus. Like Maleficent with Aurora, the actions of Hades cause Hercules to grow up away from his royal birthright. Also like Aurora, even living as a common person isn't enough to disguise Hercules.
He stands out. Born inherently strong, Hercules remains physically strong even down on earth. He didn't have to work for this strength like Mulan did; he just has it. And he doesn't know how to use it. He wants to help but all he does is make a mess of things, even physically knocking over the whole town center. Like so many at the start of their journey, he feels out of place and longs for something more. Hercules feels like he's supposed to be somewhere else--which is quite true. He isn't just Cinderella looking longingly at the castle before she starts her day of work; he truly was born to live up in the sky instead of down on earth. So that makes sense. But notice what else he dreams of. Not just of belonging but also of cheering crowds. Therein lies the problem: Hercules is just a young person dreaming about fame and acceptance. Even when he says, "I would go most anywhere to feel like I belong," he doesn't truly understand where "anywhere" will be and what he will have to do to gain what he seeks.
When Zeus tells him that he must become a hero to regain his status as an immortal, Hercules is, like a young person once more, excited and eager. He promises not to let Zeus down and now sings that he will "face the world, fearless, proud, and strong." Yet he's still seeking a "hero's welcome." He sings about being fearless and strong without realizing yet what strength is.
Even when he trains with Phil, Hercules learns strength, agility, and technique. But he's still just that same young man, only with an ego now to replace his awkward feeling back at home. He thinks that now that he can control his strength, everyone will finally love him. His first encounter saving Meg goes awkwardly and he oddly introduces himself as a hero in Thebes, only to receive laughter in response. And even when he does help them? What does he say then? "I did great--they even applauded." He still has the wrong focus.
When Hercules talks to Zeus again, what does he tell him? That he's beaten everyone he's fought and that he's famous. Zeus didn't ask him to fight anyone or to become famous; he asked him to become a hero. It is only at the end, when Meg gives him a reason to think of someone else before himself, that Hercules finally acts out what Zeus has been hinting at. Diving in to save Meg from death's grip even at risk to his own life, Hercules finally achieves his immortality. As Zeus says, "a true hero isn't measured by the size of his strength but by the strength of his heart." Being able to fight had nothing to do with it.
And did you notice? By the time the crowds did cheer for him, Hercules no longer cared about receiving their cheers. He was just focused on Meg by that point. A hero doesn't seek glory for himself. Very classic journey there.
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