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The Greatest Thing Since They Put the Pocket in Pita

If you recall a blog post I did a while back, I'm a huge fan of Disney movies. Especially if they're from the Disney Renaissance (circa 1989-1999). Let's face it. I grew up during this wonderful age of animation, and I also had the chance to appreciate the Disney films from years earlier. They're called "classics" for a reason, you know. I prefer hand drawn animation because that was what I grew up with for most of life, with the exception of Toy Story in 1995. If there was any CGI involved in the film, it wouldn't be so overwhelming that it would take away from the beauty and artistry of the characters and the backgrounds so well drawn. Nowadays, I long for a hand drawn animated film again. Don't get me wrong. CGI is great for many things these days. But I worry that with this new generation of fans all they want is CGI films, and if there was anything that was hand drawn, it wouldn't have the same allure or brilliance it did back in the day. It would look sloppy in some cases. (I'm looking at you current Mickey Mouse cartoons.) Kids these days wouldn't appreciate all of the hard work and dedication the animators went through for many years to create the wonderful films and shows that hold a special place in our hearts. Is there a reason why the phrase "kids will never understand..." or "there's no imagination anymore" exists in our language when remakes and reboots are done? But I digress. Let's get back to the topic at hand. Which happens to be a Disney classic that inspired my love of Greek mythology. Long ago, in the faraway land of ancient Greece, there was a golden age of powerful gods and extraordinary heroes. And the greatest and strongest of all these heroes... Was the mighty Hercules. But what is the measure of a true hero. Now, that is what our story... Wait a minute! The last thing I want to do is to turn this week's post into a Greek tragedy. We're going to lighten things up here. I'm no muse (though I do LOVE the arts!), but I can definitely tell a good story in a colorful way. Especially if it's one that I still enjoy watching and reflecting on from time to time. That's right. It's time to look at one of my favorite Disney films... Hercules! I'll share with you the story behind this underrated animated classic, what components I enjoyed the most, and how some of the most important themes from this film are still relevant to this day. Let's just hope I don't get struck by one of Zeus' thunderbolts...

The story of Hercules is a relatively simple one: the demigod (half man, half god) is on a journey to become a true hero in order to join the legion of gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus. To add a little bit more detail... Hercules is born to the rulers of Mount Olympus, Zeus and Hera, and the joyous celebration was the talk of the heavens. Everyone welcomed the baby with happiness and love, except Hades, the ruler of the Underworld. Unbeknownst to the other gods and goddesses, Hades is plotting to take over Mount Olympus because he's sick and tired of being lord of the dead and having his brother Zeus ruling over all of the gods. Hades surreptitiously gets a glimpse into the future with the help of the three Fates, who let him in on a little secret - he will defeat Zeus with the help of the imprisoned Titans, UNLESS Hercules fights backs and foils Hades' plan. Being the hothead (see what I did there?) that Hades is, this doesn't go over well. So, Hades gets his incompetent imps, Pain and Panic, to steal baby Hercules from Mount Olympus under the cover of darkness and have him drink a potion that will make him mortal. Let's backtrack here: You can't kill a god or a goddess. They're IMMORTAL. You have to make them MORTAL in order to kill them. Capisce? Now, this plan would've worked well, even if Pain and Panic were downright terrified. However, Hercules didn't drink the entire potion, specifically, the last drop. That was because a married couple, Alcmene and Amphitryon, found the infant and saved them from Pain and Panic when they became snakes. Or was it Hercules who saved Alcmene and Amphitryon from the slithering Pain and Panic? I think it was the latter because of his god-like strength, even for a baby! (If any of you know of babies who have monumental strength, please send them my way!) Hercules grew up with Alcmene and Amphitryon in a seemingly normal way, with the exception of his godlike strength and clumsiness getting in the way of fitting in. It was rough, especially when he accidentally destroyed a market square and was called a freak by the citizens. He longs to find out where he belongs in the world, and Hercules discovers from his parents that he was abandoned as an infant, with only a medal around his neck with the symbol of the gods. Hercules decides to go to the Temple of Zeus to get answers. And boy, does he get answers! Hercules discovers that Zeus is his father, he was very much loved, and that only gods and goddesses can be on Mount Olympus. But there is a way for Hercules' godhood to be restored: he needs to prove himself a true hero, and the first thing Hercules needs to do is seek out Philoctetes, the trainer of heroes. As much as I'd like to go on with more details, I can't find it in my heart to give away the whole story, even if you did watch the movie over a million times. But I will say this: Throw in a satyr named Phil, a magnificent flying horse named Pegasus, some gospel muses, and a beautiful woman named Meg, you got yourself a Disney classic! But WHY is it a Disney classic? Especially if the critics had mixed opinions? Especially if it wasn't as successful as the other films in the Disney Renaissance? Especially if there were extreme liberties taken with Greek mythology? Well, I got a few ideas. Let's start with the story itself. Greek mythology as a whole isn't all sunshine and daises. In fact, it was pretty brutal. Much of what you saw in Hercules - the movie and the TV show - was adjusted in order to make it family friendly as well as educational for all ages. Some of the things you witnessed in the Disney movie aren't exactly true to what ACTUALLY happened in real Greek mythology. For instance... Zeus was actually known for being a ladies man, having affairs with hundreds of women. If any of them resisted his advances, they would be punished. Hera was bitterly jealous of Zeus and the numerous trysts he had with women, so she would often punish those women in the worst possible way. Io, one of Zeus' many lovers, was turned into a cow by the ruler to fool Hera, but Hera caught on real quick to this deception and asked for the bovine as a present. So, she sent Argus Panoptes, a giant with 100 eyes (you read that right) to watch over Io and prevent Zeus from watching her. Later on, Zeus sent Hermes to distract Argus so that he would eventually kill him. Hera was incenses, and so as payback, she sent a gadfly to pester Io and have wander all over the earth without stopping. Did I mention that Hera used Argus' eyes to create the peacock? In other cases... Hercules did end up marrying Megara (Meg) and having a family. However, he was driven to madness and ended up killing them all. WHAT?!?!?!?!?!? Yup, that's true. How do you think the twelve labors got started? And there's LOTS more where that came from. The plans for the film came about back in 1992, as Wikipedia puts it: In early 1992, thirty artists, writers, and animators pitched their ideas for potential animated features, each given a limited time of two minutes. The first pitch was for an adaptation of The Odyssey, which entered into production in the following summer. However, production on the film was abandoned when it was deemed too long and lacked central characters, and failed to translate into animation comedy. Animator Joe Haidar also suggested pitching a story from Greek mythology, but thought his chances plummeted when work on The Odyssey was discontinued. Nervously, he produced a pitch sketch of Hercules, and delivered a brief outline set during the Trojan War where both sides seek the title character for their secret weapon. Hercules makes a choice, without considering the consequences, though in the end, he learns humility and realizes that strength is not always the answer. With the pitching session concluded, Hercules was approved for development in which Haidar presented a page-and-a-half outline, but his involvement with the project succeeded no further.

In November 1992, fresh off of their critical and commercial success of Aladdin, directors Ron Clements and John Musker re-developed Treasure Planet up until fall 1993, with Aladdin co-screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio taking Clements and Musker's ideas and writing a treatment and script. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, disapproved of the project, but struck a deal with the directors to produce another commercially viable film before he would green-light Treasure Planet. Turning down adaptation proposals for Don Quixote, The Odyssey, and Around the World in Eighty Days, the directors were notified of Haidar's pitch for a Hercules feature. "We thought it would be our opportunity to do a "superhero" movie," Musker said, so "Ron and I being comic book fans. The studio liked us moving onto that project and so we did [Hercules]." I applaud the writers and creators for having to take some pretty dark tales of Greek mythology and transform the story of Hercules that not only remains at least 50% true to the Grecian culture, but also is relatable to all of us. "How can we take the story of the demigod Hercules and make it into one that kids and adults can appreciate and learn from?" Well, the best place to start is to base it off of our own life experiences. We each have dreams and a desire to find our place in the world. For Hercules, Phil, and Meg, those dreams are pretty simple. Meg has dreams of being free from Hades controlling her, and even have the chance to love again after her heart was broken by the man she saved out of love. Phil has dreams of having that one last great hero be the one that gets written in the stars, someone who has something special that makes his work worthwhile. Hercules, of course, dreams of becoming a true hero. But more importantly, he wants to BELONG. Hercules wants to be accepted and loved for who he is, not just for his prodigious strength and sometimes clumsy nature. It's a pretty simple theme of the movie - the importance of our dreams leading us to where we truly belong and what we really want. Sometimes, it may take us places where we never expect our dreams to take us, and we end up discovering what it is we truly want. Chances are it's more than just the glory and fame of it all. And the opportunity to connect with others who share our dreams, likes, dislikes, and characteristics always helps, too. To take the contemporary, if not universal, themes of dreams and the desire to belong and translate it to satisfy the Disneyfied Greek culture in Hercules for audiences to appreciate and understand is no easy feat. But they succeeded on all of those fronts. Another good thing about Hercules is how they used Greek mythology to make us laugh and think. Let's face it: all of the histories, fables, and tales in the Grecian culture are a lot to take in for kids. It may even be scary. So, what better way to use Greek mythology than to take some huge liberties in bringing much comedy to a film about the famous demigod? Need a little bit of a refresher? Okay. How about this: "He's gotta have a weakness, because everybody's got a weakness. I mean, for Pandora, it was the box thing. And for the Trojans, hey, they bet on the wrong horse, okay?" "I trained all those would-be heroes. Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus. Alotayusses! And every one of those bums let me down flatter than a discus. None of them could go the distance. And then, there was Achilles. Now there was a guy who had it all: the build, the foot-speed. He could jab! He could take a hit! He could keep on comin'! BUT THAT FORSLUGGINER HEEL OF HIS! He barely gets nicked there once, and kaboom! He's history." "Why, Hermes, they're lovely." "Yeah, I had Orpheus do the arrangements. Isn't that too nutty?" "Fabulous party! You know, I haven't seen this much love in a room since Narcissus discovered himself." "Careful! That's part of the mast of the Argo!" "THE Argo?" "Yeah. Who do you think taught Jason how to sail, Cleopatra?" "Hey, isn't that the goat-man who trained Achilles?" "Watch it, pal!" "Yeah, you're right. Hey, uh, nice job on those heels! Ya missed a spot!" "You... I got your heel! Right here!" "To your left is Hercules' villa. Next stop, the Pecs and Flex gift shop, where you can buy the great hero's new 30-minute workout scroll, "Buns of Bronze."" "One town, a million troubles. The one and only Thebes. The Big Olive itself. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." "Wow, what a day. First that restaurant by the bay, and then that play... that, that Oedipus thing? Man, I thought I had problems!" And then the artists and storytellers made it especially contemporary, unlike many films or shows that deal with Greek mythology. How about Herculade? Speedy Pita? 10 for a dracma pita special? A job fair in Athens, including a booth with Socrates? Zephyrus Gump? Sophocles Choice? Acropolis Now? Troy Story? Internship week in Agora? Parking in the Muse section? A vase (vahse) factory in Ithaca? An inter-city-state highway? Synchronizing sundials? A Hercules action figure? High laundress getting out bloodstains out of armor from battles and wars? The Grecian Express credit card? (Don't leave home without it!) The Hercules Store? Starbacchus? Yeah, this film is awesome when you add little details from the present to make a usually heavy, depressing Greek mythological story like Hercules a lot of fun to watch! That's definitely a good reason why this movie is so good. Another good reason why Hercules is such a great film to watch? The cast!

Seriously, this film had an excellent group of individuals who lent their voices to some incredible characters. I mean, the collage of faces above is enough to leave you impressed. Especially Charlton Heston in a cameo role as the narrator! How can you not smile at his "you go, girl" at the top of the film? Each of these actors offered something special to their respective characters. For Tate Donovan, he offered the naivete and determination of Hercules. For James Woods, he offered the smooth talking salesman attitude of Hades. For Susan Egan, she offered the confidence and vulnerability of Meg. For Danny DeVito, well, he offered the best of what NYC is all about. Toughness, blatant honesty, and a little bit of a fun side. Then the muses - LaChanze, Lillias White, Roz Ryan, Vaneese Y. Thomas, and Cheryl Freeman - had vocals that were off the charts! So much passion and the harmonies were electric. And then the supporting actors, like Bobcat Goldthwait, Matt Frewer, Josh Keaton, Rip Torn, Samantha Eggar, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Barrie, Carole Shelley, Paddi Edwards, Amanda Plummer, and of course, Paul Shaffer, round out the cast bringing much originality and spirit into their characters as best described. And if you though the movie cast was phenomenal, let's talk about the TV show. Yup, there was a TV show. Hercules: The Animated Series has our hero-in-training going on adventures while struggling with being a teenager. Again, much of the contemporary, if not universal, themes of growing up and figuring out where we belong are ever present in this show. But the one thing that always makes me smile is the list of guest stars who took the time to lend their voices to this show. I hope they all enjoyed themselves. Who wouldn't?! The list is long and extensive, but right off the top of my head, some of the guest stars include: Jane Leeves, French Stewart, Betty White, Jennifer Anniston, Idina Menzel, Merv Griffin, William Shatner, Diedrich Bader, Wink Martindale, Louis Gosset, Jr., Annie Potts, David Alan Grier, Sandra Bernhard, Lisa Kudrow, Jay Thomas, Reba McEntire, Florence Henderson, Andrea Martin, Nicholas Turturro, Tom Kenny, Jonathan Katz, Jason Alexander, Ben Stein, Linda Hamilton, Tom Arnold, Dom DeLuise, Alan Rosenberg, Peri Gilpin, Brad Garret, Chris Elliott, Miguel Ferrer, Thomas Lennon, Carl Reiner, Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee Gifford, Reggie Miller, Eric Idle, George Takei, Leslie Mann, Richard Simmons, Kathy Najimy, Alice Ghostley, Paul Rubens, Patrick Warburton, Rocky Carroll, Mandy Pantinkin, Ed Asner, Jim Belushi, Cary Elwes, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Tambor, Tia Carrere, Craig Ferguson, Jane Curtin, Emeril Lagasse, Vicki Lewis, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Stiller, Will Ferrell, Tim Conway, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Harvey Korman, Michael Dorn, Jim Varney, Jeremy Piven, Earl Hindman, Jack Carter, John O'Hurley, Charles Nelson Reilly, Holland Taylor, Stuart Pankin, Mike Connors, Wayne Newton, Wayne Knight, Steven Weber, Steven Wright, Steve Hytner, Jean Smart, Scott Weinger, Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman... WHEW! What a mouthful! Thank goodness for Wikipedia because I don't think I could've remembered the vast majority of names involved with the show. But I also don't want to forget some notable character voice actors who also lent their voices to the series, like Rob Paulsen, Cree Summer, Kevin Michael Richardson, Jodi Benson, Jason Marsden, Jim Cummings, Kath Soucie, Keith David, Frank Welker, Corey Burton, Stan Freberg, Christine Cavanaugh, Pamela Adlon, Lacey Chabert, Ryan O'Donahue, and Dan Castellaneta. Much of the contemporary references and Easter eggs appeared in the series run, with the exception of more life lessons relevant to families being prevalent. And much of these things are still being preached today. Like thinking for yourself. Like a man or woman having their own free will in relationships and not being clingy or desperate for love. Like a family still having love and understanding, even if parents are getting divorced or remarried. Like intelligence being much appreciated in every single instance, even if it's boring or annoying. Like not having to prove you're a man or a woman (or even LGBTQ+) just to fit in with others, especially if you're uncomfortable with what they're doing. Like taking responsibility for your actions, including watching your house for a weekend. Like being a good sport and not get too big in your britches for the absolute need to win all the time. Like being able to conquer your biggest nightmares when you're asleep... and when you're awake. Like honesty always being the best policy, even if it hurts others. You're never too old to learn these lessons, especially if they have to be repeated over and over again to each generation. (It's a joy to share my observations and thoughts on the many ideas and topics I think about, but like my past blogs, these are simply my opinions. You are welcome to disagree with me on anything I say. But I won't stand for any disrespectful, offensive, or harmful language of any kind. If I find even a hint of these words in the comments, I will block you. We need to start respecting each other's opinions and thoughts without having to prove that we're right all the time, and spewing hateful words and sentences isn't the way to go about this at all.) A big reason why I love Disney movies so much is that no matter how old a film is, there's a chance you can see yourself as the character or within the story. In other words, the messages and themes in these animated classics are universal for EVERYONE to learn, understand, and possibly thrive in their lives by seeing these films. We get to be reminded of our humanity. Like many things, there cannot be good without evil, nor can there be successes without failures or even growth with stumbling/standing still. There are plenty of messages from Hercules, both in the film and TV show, that are still relevant this day. But there's one important one that should shape our lives, no matter what our paths are. And that's the idea of going the distance. "Go the distance" means to continue doing what is necessary until you achieve your goal, according to Webster's dictionary definition. You don't stop until you finally accomplish that lifelong dream, task, or quest that is your live's work. You can even call it your passion, the one thing that keeps your heart beating. For Hercules, his ultimate path to going the distance can be summed up into one sentence: to become a true hero. And while he trained frequently with Phil, he never gave up or stopped, even if he was extremely tired and a little bit clumsy. But it goes even deeper than becoming a true hero. It's finding his way and being able to belong in the world, whether that's on Mount Olympus or potentially somewhere else. The beauty of going the distance? It's unique for each of us, and we're not all meant to travel the same path. For me, it's a career as a working actor and even learning to love who I am. I'm sure yours is different from mine, or even the person next to you. But here's one thing to remember about going the distance: Don't. Give. Up. Or as Phil so eloquently puts it: "Giving up is for rookies. I came because I'm not quitting on ya. I'm willing to go the distance. How about you?" Even when you're at your lowest point, even when the world is seemingly against you, even when you feel alone, even after a million "no's" in a row, even if it seems impossible... Please don't stop going the distance. Will your ultimate goal change over the years? Of course! But just the same, don't stop. We each have to train and work hard to hone and cultivate our gifts to complete our quest, or go the distance. And it's okay to make mistakes along the way. Just do yourselves a favor and don't stop going the distance. Take breaks if you must, or in Meg's case, play hooky every once and a while. I know you have what it takes to go the distance. It's time for you to start betting on yourself and believing you can do it. And by the way, I personally believe "Go the Distance" should've won the Oscar for Best Original Song, not "My Heart Will Go On." #sorrynotsorry

Before we wrap the scroll on this week's post, I want to let you in on one more important reason why this film is so near and dear to my heart. And it's all about the concept of being a true hero. "To be a true hero, kid, is a dying art. It's like paining a masterpiece - it's a work of heart." Heroism is more than just having the skills, athleticism, knowledge, wealth, power, prestige, and moxie. It's about the heart, and that matters just as much as all of the other qualities. "For a true hero isn't measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart." Being a hero or heroine means putting others needs before your own out of love, consideration, understanding, and especially kindness. It means that your character on and off the court, battlefield, or whatever profession you're in takes precedence over the fame and strength you possess. It means that love matters above all else in whatever you do and who you have in your lives that shares your beliefs and dreams and supports you. And most of all... You put your heart into going the distance, whatever the adventure may be. Don't lose sight of what's important to you, my heroes and heroines (and those in training, too!). Never lose the strength in your heart to become a true hero or heroine. In all fairness... Even with all of the historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, this film truly is the greatest thing since they put the pocket in pita. See what I did there?

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