Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hercules (1997)

By Cinema Muse

Although I believe this movie qualifies for Disney Princess status--heck, marrying a demi-god beats marrying a lousy old prince any day--it's usually not included on the list because a) it wasn't that successful in theaters, and b) Megera isn't technically a princess in Disney's version of the story, though she certainly was a princess in the Greek myth. I also really think she should be included because she was the very first anti-princess character in a Disney movie, and it always speaks both to the influence and weaknesses of the type when an anti-type is produced.

Obviously the most appropriate person to review a Disney film making fun of Greek mythology would be a Greek-American, and fortunately I am both genetically and culturally qualified for the daunting task. As a child I was both strangely attracted to this movie by my ethnic ties and repelled by the subject's dark moments. In fact, when I first heard that Disney was going to make a children's movie out of a Greek myth, I thought it an impossible task considering everyone short of the two virgin goddesses is promiscuous in those stories. Somehow Disney manages to alter the plot in order to weed out the gratuitous sex, and they also make everything look and sound superficially Greek, neither of which is any mean feat. Still, the movie is so blatantly anachronistic in order to put in pop culture references that we can never suspend our disbelief and think it's really Ancient Greece. But I must admit that I enjoy the mention of food like pita and mousaka enjoyable along with the casual mention of other myths. It's not Greek, but it's a very pleasing imitation, especially since Greek Mythology is such a ripe subject for satire.

Despite the cultural ties, though, I did not watch this movie much as a kid because my mother considered the villain too dark. Hades and his underworld abode are admittedly creepy, but I didn't find him that intimidating both because he was a wisecracker and because I was older when the film first came out. Still, the Fates in this film are revolting, and the hydra is truly frightening at moments. I could have taken this, however, were it not for the fact that Meg actually dies in the end--and not in that Snow White death-like-sleep way, either, but legitimate death. You know, the kind where if Dr. McCoy had been around he'd have said, "She's dead, Jim!" Even as a kid I knew that the film wouldn't end on that note, but the fact that a main character like that could bite the bullet still makes the movie quite disturbing for children's fare.

Let's concentrate on Megera, though, shall we? In my youth I really didn't understand her appeal as a character because I didn't have the life experience to appreciate her plight and motivation. I though she was too cynical, callus, and scheming to be a sympathetic character, even though her commentary made me laugh at times. I couldn't comprehend at that age the pain that would cause a woman to become that jaded, but since I've experienced some modicum of the suffering she goes through, she quickly skyrocketed up my list of memorable Disney characters. Meg is basically the Dulcinea archetype, the Jean Arthur character in a Frank Capra film (See Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to see what I mean). She's the good girl who has turned apathetic from overexposure to vice and corruption. Hiding behind the veil of cynicism, she's even managed to convince herself that she no longer cares about right and wrong until she meets Hercules.

Like our "princess" herself, our hero Hercules is hardly a moral paragon either. Although he has a functioning conscience, he becomes a "hero" for entirely selfish reasons. In addition he's extremely dense and unexperienced, or to quote Blackadder, he's "as thick as clotted cream that's been left out by some clot until the clots are so clotted that they couldn't be un-clotted with an electric de-clotter." But Herc's naivety and the way he treats Meg with dignity win her heart and revives her morality. Herc treats Meg like a princess without any ulterior motives, and once she realizes the sincere value he places on her, she regains her self-respect and with it her ability to stand up for what she believes in.

We must bear in mind that this awakening of consciousness is no mean feat because Meg has been horribly abused by men in the past, so her resentment is deep-rooted. Being myself one of many women who have been the victims of unscrupulous men--and indeed physical and emotional abuse against women has become increasingly common--I find her unwillingness to trust men very believable. Indeed when you've been betrayed by the person you love and esteem most in the world, it's completely natural to become suspicious of the everyone you meet. Not only do we find out that Meg was betrayed by the man she loved, but to add insult to injury she then became the slave of the evil-incarnate lord of the underworld. So the abuse and debasement she suffers is double and ongoing when she meets Hercules.

Actually, when we learn Meg's backstory, we realize that she is a victim of the princess mentality, which is why she becomes an anti-princess. Like the Disney Princesses we know and love, Meg used to be a virtuous girl who would do anything for true love, even selling her soul to the devil in order to save the man she loves. Unfortunately, just like many women today, Meg learns the hard way about the dangers of giving her heart too freely. After she sells her soul to win her beloved's freedom, he runs off with another woman, leaving Meg with years of enslavement to contemplate her mistake. So being a Disney Princess got Meg in serious peril.

In fact women like Meg danger in the face of scheming men every day of their lives, and the princess archetype so prevalent in our culture and especially narratives aimed at women only tend to exacerbate that problem. Those narratives tell women that their lives aren't fulfilled unless they're in a romantic relationship; they tell them that they should love men in spite of often egregious faults; and they tell them that love can solve any problem. All three of these statements are flatly false and dangerous to believe. They are also a bit redundant considering that women are already genetically programed to form strong attachments and forgive the wrongs of people they love. That what keeps us from murdering our children. So having mass media that tell us to cultivate these qualities without tempering them with reason poses a serious threat.

Let me just point out three ways in which this mentality can be harmful if it goes unchecked. First of all telling women that her life is meaningless without love can make those women desperate for love, and thus willing to get involved with guys that will mistreat them. Secondly the mentality makes women think they should overlook and forgive unhealthy behavior in the name of love, which often leads men to abuse this clemency and continue indulging their vices. And finally this mentality can make women stay in a bad relationship, hoping that the strength of their love and commitment will win out in the end. Scratch the surface of any woman who has experienced physical, sexual, mental, or emotional abuse at the hands of her significant other, and you will find these these values trapping her in the unhealthy situation, blinding her to the seriousness of her plight. Thus the Disney Princess Syndrome is extremely perilous to the mentality of young women, if they don't know how it can be manipulated against them.

Back to the plot of the film, however, when Meg feels herself falling in love, her fist instinct is a fight-or-flight response. This produces the best number in the film, "I Won't Say I'm in Love," and it also shows that the great labor that Hercules must perform in this film is not the defeat of Hades' monsters and titans but rather influencing Meg's change of heart. This isn't to say, however, that the defeat of Hades' minions doesn't play a part in influencing Meg's revival. When Hercules first "rescues" her, she thinks his whole heroism and chivalry act is a naive joke at best. The thought of good triumphing over evil seems impossible from her perspective, but Hercules shows that fighting for a better world isn't a futile endeavor. We see her change begin when he slays the hydra and she's genuinely glad that Hades' evil plan has been thwarted. She seems to experience similar elation with all his other successes, and by the time Hades thinks of the idea of having Meg seduce Hercules to learn his weakness, she flatly refuses until Hades offers her freedom as a reward. Even though she accepts his dirty bargain, she immediately regrets it when she goes on a date with him and gets to see how much he truly values her as a person.

Once Meg learns value herself, she gains the initiative she needs to stand up to Hades and do the right thing even at the cost of her life--just as Hercules will truly give his to save hers. In that sense, therefore, they are a well-matched couple. After all, you can't get hurt as badly as Meg did in the first place unless you care very deeply about things.

So while Meg starts out as an anit-Princess type who doesn't want men in her life and doesn't believe in fighting for virtue, she gets a reversion of values and with it a traditional happy ending. This was the first Disney movie that told a cynical generation that maybe the status quo didn't have to say the way they hated it to be, even though it still told them they could solve their problems with the right man. Whether or not they agreed with Disney's new thesis, it was nice to see the wizened point-of-view acknowledged by the studio of dreams and idealism without undermining those optimistic values. They'd pick up the same theme ten years later for their 2D animation revival, Enchanted, a more thorough treatment of the subject.

Hercules may be a problematic film in a lot of ways--especially in the accuracy to Greek mythology--but it succeeds at least in its portrayal of Meg. She takes us beyond the princess archetype, but in returning to it in the end, affirms it's power over our imagination. We may not like that she affirms the Disney Princess model in the end, but at least she points out its dangers to us.

**Please check out Cinema Muse's blog of classic Hollywood and book adaptation reviews, Seeing Sepia

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