Ron Clements and John Musker’s Hercules is seen as a cult classic now, a zippy, irreverent take on classic Greek mythology that features warm characters, terrific musical numbers, and one of the all-time great Disney villains in the form of James Woods’ underworld schmoozer, Hades. But the task of bringing Hercules to the big screen was positively, well, Herculean.
Animated films take a long time and go through many iterations and Hercules is no exception, beginning first as a pitch for an animated feature based on Homer’s The Odyssey and eventually moving more directly into the realm of Greek myth. When the film finally hit screens in 1997, the movie was fully formed; an ingenious riff on celebrity culture and our modern obsession with sports stars, told in a thoroughly contemporary style.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Below are three versions of Hercules that you never saw, not that any of them are particularly missed. As Eric Goldberg, the animator who was chiefly responsible for Phil (voiced by Danny Devito), told us, “I like the movie. I’m glad we got to slide little things into the movie. And Ron and John really did their homework. I’ve talked to educators who tell me that they show Hercules in their classroom. It’s not 100% accurate to the myths but it’s a great jumping off point because a lot of it is.”
There’s a moment towards the end of the “Zero to Hero” musical number where Hercules and Pegasus fly through a star field. In this sequence, Hercules was originally to pass by the constellation of Cancer, which was to be shaped like Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid (get it?) But what was more was right under the Sebastian cameo was an even starrier cameo from Ariel. This moment made it really far along the process, and was even animated. (If you attended the Hercules Mega Mall Show Sponsored by Chevy Venture, a promotional tour that canvassed 20 American cities starting in February 1997, then you saw this missing moment in its entirety.) And while this was a really great shout out to Ron and John’s earlier classic, it ultimately took away some of the power of the terrific musical number that preceded it and was cut.
One of Hercules’ biggest assets is its incredible design aesthetic, which was largely the work of Gerald Scarfe, a British illustrator and editorial cartoonist for The New Yorker, who served as the film’s production designer. According to the amazing making-of book, Hercules: The Chaos of Creation by Stephen Rebello, Clements and Musker met with Scarfe in Los Angeles and Scarfe then went back to London and created more than four hundred character and setting concepts, “many of which were hung in the Feature Animation building in Burbank.” These illustrations were a shock to the animators’ system, highly stylized and often chaotic. In the book art director Andy Gaskill admitted that, “My first thought was, This marriage of Scarfe and traditional Greek ideas is not going to be a happy one.” Andreas Deja, who animated Hercules, said that Scarfe’s work gave him “the most confusing signals of all.” But Clements and Musker never wavered, since they knew how well Scarfe’s illustrations could work in animation, having both been fans of his work in the film version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And thumbing through pre-production artwork you can see the whole vibe of Hercules change once Scarfe was introduced into the bloodstream; things became weirder and wilder, which ended up being perfect for the frantic, 100-jokes-a-minute tone that Clements and Musker were going for.
In 1985, in the meeting where Ron Clements and John Musker pitched Disney on The Little Mermaid, they also pitched a film they called Treasure Planet, described by the duo as “Treasure Island in space.” After their involvement in 1992’s Aladdin, the filmmakers sought to return to Treasure Planet. But the pitch still had some kinks that needed to be ironed out and the technology need to catch up with the storytelling, so then head of animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg made them a deal: if they directed Hercules, then they could finally get the green light for Treasure Planet. Hercules appealed to the filmmakers because it would allow them to do “a superhero story” while also commenting on the world of celebrity athletes and endorsement deals, so they agreed. They finally got to make Treasure Planet, which came out in 2002.