Disney appears to officially be moving ahead with its live-action remake of animated classic Hercules, causing me a not-insignificant amount of anxiety.
The recent news that Guy Ritchie has been brought on board as director on the upcoming movie, which came the same week as the original’s 25th anniversary, seems to take the long-gestating project into far more solid territory. As a fan of the 1997 cartoon – and if forced to choose, I would pick this as my favourite ever Disney film – this development makes the concerns I had bubbling away at the back of my mind all too real.
Yes, we live in a world where Disney is clearly working through its not-unimpressive back catalogue of classics and hits, determined to re-spin, refresh (almost never needed) and re-sell the intellectual property back to its biggest fans (hi).
The list of live-action remakes from the studio has grown at an alarming rate, including Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mulan, with Pinocchio due to drop on Disney Plus in September, The Little Mermaid swimming its way towards a 2023 release and West Side Story star Rachel Zegler currently shooting the new Snow White film in London.
It’s enough to make your head spin, although not so much that you won’t realise Disney is hardcore targeting its millennial and older Gen Z markets with its regurgitation of fantastic films from the so-called Disney Renaissance period, considered to have started with Ariel in 1989 and ended around a decade later (yes, I do think 1999’s Tarzan counts).
Guy Ritchie is both an odd and entirely understandable choice to direct Hercules – he helmed 2019’s Aladdin remake with Will Smith for the studio, surpassing the $1billion (£818million) mark for the first time in his career. That’s the kind of sentence that makes Disney executives very happy, I’m sure. Me? Not so much.
I was sorely tempted to walk out of Ritchie’s take on Aladdin because I hated the first 30 minutes so much, with its garbled pace, woeful exposition, and soulless shot-by-shot replays from the animation in an attempt to service fans. It improved slightly to the ‘meh’ level, but it’s hardly the type of film that inspires confidence in me as to how Ritchie can handle the complexity and light touch so desperately needed for a film like Hercules. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great action-type director, but Disney musicals are a far cry from Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Never seemingly considered much by Disney in the aftermath of its release, bar a short-lived (and glorious) 90s TV show and a 2019 musical that’s yet to make it to Broadway, Hercules is ignored in its theme parks worldwide, having performed poorly at the box office compared to prior releases Pocahontas and The Lion King.
It did still get Disney its customary Oscar nod for best original song (Go the Distance lost out to My Heart Will Go On from Titanic, what can you do?), and this was in the days before the animated feature category.
However, this movie has inspired a passionate fandom in the intervening years that appreciates Hercules for its zippy script, fantastic characters, beautifully stylised animation and the way it managed to take a myth of murder, rape, infanticide, rage issues and problematic parents (to put it mildly) and produce the magic that it did.
(I will extend understanding to Greece though for being a bit peeved at the commercialisation and sanitisation of one of their best-known heroes Heracles, with the government declining an open-air premiere in Athens – but the real story was never going to cut it for a Disney movie, was it?)
So how on earth is the remake of Hercules going to address this? Dave Callaham’s original script is to undergo a rewrite, according to the latest reports. Producers Joe and Anthony Russo have previously said the upcoming film will be ‘in the vein of the original and inspired by it’ while also bringing in new elements.
Which new elements will they choose though – the part where Hera isn’t pink, glittery and loving but in fact torments Hercules throughout his days for being one of many of Zeus’ illegitimate offspring? Or the bit where Hercules kills Megara and their kids after being driven mad?
By working with the bare bones of the myth and putting a jaunty spin on things, along with one of Alan Menken’s most joyous scores, Disney created the perfect family movie. It was also a wonderful gateway into mythology for many – I consider this film no small part in why I eventually studied classics at university.
It’s also been reported that Jennifer Hudson was in talks to play one of the Muses in the remake, and fans have already dream cast many of the roles (there’s strong support for Danny DeVito to reprise Phil), while Lizzo themed her Rumors music video in a clear play to potentially join J-Hud’s crew. So heaven forbid this new ‘not literal translation’ of 1997’s effort doesn’t include music.
I don’t envy Disney trying to replace James Woods as Hades either, in what is likely to prove as difficult a job for the new actor as it was for Will Smith to follow on from Robin Williams’ Genie. He was actually pretty OK in the end – especially when allowed to veer away from Williams’ work – but he couldn’t hold a candle to the late, great comedian.
Hades was hard enough for Disney to cast first time around, when the production couldn’t afford Jack Nicholson and let John Lithgow go because it just wasn’t working. Woods’ wise-cracking, chilled-but-not-really interpretation of the Lord of the Underworld was utterly inspired. In the current climate of cancel culture, can Disney offer the role once more to Woods, considering his vehement Twitter activity? He does retain it still for videogame instalments, so never say never, I guess.
These are just some of the issues Disney could face with their Hercules remake.
Although many of the studio’s previous live-action films have faced criticism, there’s something a little more dangerous in the air this time around.
It feels like Disney really has to pull it out of the bag with this one, as anything less than as inspired a take as last time is unlikely to cut the mustard.
Yes, the fanbase of the OG Hercules will undoubtedly be checking out the new version, a well-known phenomenon considering the consistent remake strategy that rumbles on.
This time though, I’m begging: Please Disney, handle with care.