Hercules was one of the last big hand-drawn Disney "event" movies. It was the first Disney animated feature promoted as part of an exclusive, international multi-year partnership between Disney and McDonald's.
Hercules is vastly different from any other movie being made these days. However, at the time it was released (June 27, 1997), it seemed to stick very close to a formula, as far as Disney musicals were concerned.
The character designs were something totally different. And Hercules is a rare, heroic ginger leading man.
In the United States, the big Disney animated films from 1991 to 1996 were promoted by Burger King. This includes "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", "The Lion King", "Pocahontas", and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
Outside of the United States, McDonald's had promoted those films. As part of a new agreement, McDonald's (which had missed out on promoting a hit like "The Lion King" in the United States) would promote Disney films in America, and also have a presence in Disney theme parks.
Ironically, the new deal with McDonald's began at a time when Disney's new animated films were not matching the success of a mega-hit like "The Lion King."
Much like Aladdin, Hercules injected some humor into a familiar tale.
Greek Mythology proved to be a good fit with Disney fantasy.
The 1998 Hercules animated TV series was in production when the movie hit theaters. The series focused on the school adventures of the teenager version of Hercules. In the film, the singing voice of young Hercules was supplied by Roger Bart.
Hercules did not take itself too seriously, which made for some fun references and puns.
In addition to Happy Meal toys, McDonald's sold a collection of six Hercules plates.
Marilyn Monroe makes a cameo as a constellation in the "Zero to Hero" musical number.
I seem to remember that Sebastian the crab (from "The Little Mermaid") appeared as a constellation in early promotions for Hercules, but I guess it was changed for some reason.
Individual animators for a big movie are never singled out anymore, but this was pretty common in the Nineties.
Scar from "The Lion King" has a cameo in "Hercules." It is kinda gruesome.
The American Hercules McDonald's Happy Meal features ten sets of toys. Each set consists of a PVC character figure and a larger, hollow plastic "container" character that snaps together. There are 20 different characters represented in this set.
The first set is the Wind Titan and Hermes (voiced by Paul Shaffer from The Late Show With David Letterman).
The second set has Zeus (voiced by Rip Torn) and the Rock Titan.
Most of the PVC figures in the Hercules Happy Meal have some sort of limited motion.
The third set is Hercules and the Hydra.
I guess with this set you could actually pretend like the Hydra eats Hercules.
The fourth set is Baby Pegasus and the Lava Titan.
I'm kind of surprised that Baby Pegasus isn't still a big merchandise character for Disney.
The fifth set is Pain (voiced by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait) and the Cyclops.
Bobcat Goldthwait voiced a vulgar stuffed animal in the Disney (Touchstone) TV series "Unhappily Ever After."
The sixth set is Panic (voiced by Matt Frewer) and the Fates.
Children of the 1980s may be shocked to learn that Matt Frewer was the actor who portrayed the quirky TV personality Max Headroom.
Set seven is Megara (voiced by Susan Egan) and Pegasus.
Susan Egan played Belle in the first Broadway Musical version of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."
Set eight is Muse Calliope (voiced by Lillias White) and the Ice Titan.
I'm pretty sure I remember reading that the Titans were mostly animated at the (now closed) Disney Animation Studios in Paris, France.
Set nine is Phil (voiced by Danny DeVito) and Nessus (voiced by Jim Cummings).
Nessus the Centaur looks like he could be a professional wrestler.
Set ten is Hades and Fluffy. I mean Cerberus.
This is the only merchandise I remember seeing representing Cerberus.
In addition to the toys, there were Hercules feast plates for sale at McDonald's.
Why the long face? I only got the Pegasus plate.
Outside of the United States, there was a very different Hercules McDonald's Happy Meal (I don't own this set, but I like it!).
I think this international Hercules McDonald's set, which features wind-up and action toys, is way better than the American one.
Disney Adventures Magazine dedicated an entire issue to the premiere of Hercules.
Hercules had a superhero sized marketing push.
The Muses sing the story of Hercules.
The music for Hercules was created by Alan Menken and David Zippel.
The song "Go the Distance" was nominated for an Academy Award. It lost to that Celine Dion song from "Titanic."
Hercules never made it to Broadway, but "Hercules the Muse-ical" did show up on the Disney Cruise Line.
Herc and Meg are ready for a Toga party.
Hercules looks a bit like Craig Kilborn. Or Eric Stoltz.
Phil does look a bit like Danny DeVito. They should have had a character that looks like Rhea Perlman in the movie.
Here we see a hand-drawn version of the Hydra, which does not appear in the movie. Say what?!
Can Hercules defeat his foes, including Hades? I'd say the odds are pretty good.
Tate Donovan (Hercules) later went on to star in the hit series, "The O.C." Welcome to the O.C., Hercules!
When Tate Donovan was voicing Hercules, he was also dating Jennifer Aniston (this is mentioned here).
If I had to guess, I'd say the tabloids were probably claiming that Jennifer Aniston was pregnant even back when this article was written in 1997.
I remember reading that the producers had originally thought of the personality of Hercules being a dog, and Hades a cat, but when James Woods voiced the character, Hades had the personality of a weasel.
These days, James Woods can frequently be found (as a parody of himself) on the animated TV series "Family Guy."
The Hydra was among the first computer animated characters in a Disney movie.
At the time (1997) computer character animation in films was still pretty new. Pixar's Toy Story had just debuted in 1995.
The story of Hercules is reminiscent of a number of superhero origin stories..
So many big superstars crash and burn. It's kind of ironic that the Hercules characters did not catch on like Simba or Aladdin.
The marketing promotion for Hercules was HUGE, including a special version of the Main Street Electrical Parade (with a Hercules float) in New York City.
Of course, like the movie, there were action figures for sale everywhere.
Hercules even poked fun at The Disney Store.
True to the movie, Hercules was involved in numerous promotional partnerships.
Even casual observers noticed that Hercules "looked different" from other Disney movies.
The unusual look of Disney's Hercules was inspired by artist Gerald Scarfe, who was the production designer for the movie.
Some of Scarfe's work can be seen in Pink Floyd's "The Wall."
The one character that Gerald Scarfe had the toughest time with was Hercules himself.
The animators working on hand drawn Disney animated features in the Nineties were well known and recognized.
The Hercules animated cast has an important meeting with the folks who draw them.
The Hercules animators (actors with pencils) were cast accordingly.
Andreas Deja, the animator for Hercules, previously worked on Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast."
Animator Eric Goldberg created magic with Aladdin's Genie and Phil from Hercules.
Here's a well-placed ad for McDonald's Hercules plates.
How do you draw Hercules? It's easy!
Well, it is not that easy, apparently.
Who could have imagined how much video games would have changed since 1997?
Pain and Panic are perplexed by 1997 gaming equipment.
If Hercules was promoted today, I guess Subway Restaurants could offer a Hercules Hero Sandwich.
I think Hercules could be a good mascot for one of those brands of Greek Yogurt that is popular right now.
In addition to McDonald's, there were Hercules toys available at Choice Hotels in 1997.
I'm not sure how many toys were in this set, or how they were distributed exactly.
Nestle was a major promotional partner for Hercules.
Hercules Finger Puppets were sold with clear plastic swords filled with SweeTarts candies.
There was all sorts of Hercules merchandise in 1997.
Applause made a nice looking vinyl Hercules mug. Make sure the beverage you put in it is not as hot as Hades, or it will be ruined.
Mattel has been making toys based off of Disney movies for many years.
Mattel's Hercules action figures were fun and highly detailed.
There were also plush Hercules toys made by Mattel.
Baby Pegasus was a natural choice for a plush toy. How about a goat man with a hairy chest? Check the price on that.
How about a cuddly plush version of Pain or Panic?
Hercules toys (like the Pain and Panic ones here) suffered from over-merchandising. These could be found everywhere, and like so many movie items, they ended up getting deep discounted.
The most rare Hercules items could be the American Nestle Magic Figures, which became an instant collectible when they were released in 1997.
The Nestle Magic toys were packaged in a plastic ball wrapped in chocolate, and were quickly recalled.
Nestle Magic was based on a line of treats (including the popular Kinder Surprise) that has been sold in Europe for decades. I guess European children know not to eat small toys.
Only one Series was done in America, but Nestle Magic toys representing all sorts of characters continued to sell in Europe. The Nestle Magic Ball idea continued, but the prize inside the chocolate ball was more candy, not a toy.
Pain and Panic Plush were easy to find at the Disney Stores.
Pain looks worried, and he should be. See the price there? Yup, 99 cents for a 9" plush.
The Beanie Baby craze was in full force when Hercules was released.
The Bean Bag craze was so big at the Disney Store that all sorts of obscure characters got the beanie treatment. Remember the cartoon fox from "Mary Poppins"? They made a bean bag toy of him!
Hercules characters appeared on some high priced collector's merchandise, too.
Pain and Panic probably text each other when they drive this thing.
In 1998, teenage Hercules got his own animated TV show called Disney's Hercules: The Series.
New characters in the Hercules series include hyper Icarus (voiced by Third Rock From the Sun star French Stewart) and the dry Cassandra (voiced by Sandra Bernhard). Teenage Megara is not a regular on this series, but does have a major role in the episode Hercules and the Aetolian Amphora.
Hercules made his way to Walt Disney World and Disneyland in the form of parades.
Hercules shows off his pecs to Snow White at Walt Disney World.
The first wave of Hasbro Disney Wild Racers diecast cars included Chernabog (from Fantasia) and Hades.
Hasbro also released a special Villains Disney Wild Racers pack with an exclusive Hydra car.
Well, you're built like a car, you've got a hub cap diamond star halo. You're built like a car, oh yeah! Well you're slim and you're weak, you've got the teeth of the Hydra upon you! Get it on, bang a gong, get it on! (paraphrasing the song "Get It On" by T.Rex).
Hades and the Hydra were eventually re-released as part of the Disney Racers line of cars sold at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Hercules got a second shot at merchandising stardom in 2003 with the launch of the "Disney Adventurers" at the Disney Store.
Hercules teamed up with Aladdin, Tarzan, and Peter Pan. This was clearly supposed to be the male version of the popular Disney Princess brand.
In the 1998 "Hercules" Disney animated TV series, there actually was a crossover episode with Aladdin called "Hercules and the Arabian Night."
Characters from "Hercules" also appeared in the mash-up animated "Disney's House of Mouse" TV series from 2001-2003. In "House of Mouse" it was not unusual to see Hades interacting with Goofy or Pain and Panic bothering Pinocchio.
The biggest threat to the Disney Adventurers turned out not to be Captain Hook, but the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. When the Power Rangers hit the Disney Stores and Catalog, Hercules was no longer regularly available as an action figure.
Upon their retirement, the Disney Adventurers became Cycle Enthusiasts, and can be found riding among biker doctors and lawyers on weekends.
UPDATE: On September 13, 2013, Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida had a special "Limited Time Magic" Friday the 13th event called "Unleash the Villains." This turned out to be insanely popular, and it was hosted by none other than Hades, Meg, and Panic from "Hercules" (Pain was supposed to be there, but did not show up). Hades and Meg were live "face characters" and they were fantastic!
I did not get to go to Unleash the Villains, but it looks like it was fun. The audience seemed to go wild for Hades and Meg, and for tough-to-meet characters like Oogie Boogie (from The Nightmare Before Christmas) and Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty).
Hercules, Meg and Hades also proved to be very popular at a "Limited Time Magic" event called "Long Lost Friends Week" at Disneyland in California in August of 2013.