Moana was several different brands of delightful, but one aspect that captured my heart is that it draws its inspiration from mythology rather than from fairy tales—something Disney hasn’t really done since Hercules, and something that gives its heroine a very interesting dynamic. The movie features the trickster god Maui as one of its main characters and incorporates other elements of Polynesian folklore, but I was especially interested—and pleasantly surprised—to see that Moana herself has quite a traditional mythical hero’s character arc.
She is a leader, chosen by nature and destiny, who sets out on a quest surrounding an important magical object, where she ventures through the realm of the supernatural and tangles with gods. When it’s over, the balance of nature is restored and she returns to her people as a wiser and more capable ruler. It’s a quintessential hero-king quest narrative, which, incidentally, is also a quintessentially male narrative. But without so much as a shrug, Moana gives this archetype to its female heroine and sends her on her journey.
The Christianization of pagan stories is nothing new. To convince the locals to convert to Christianity, missionaries would often turn local myths and gods into saints instead so the locals could convert but still keep their folk traditions. For instance, some argue that St. Brigid of Ireland was in fact a Christianization of the Celtic goddess of the same name, and rituals surrounding the goddess Eostre were incorporated into the Christian celebration of Easter. This is a form of syncretism (thoroughly explained by Lady Geek Girl here) that was used consciously and deliberately to erase pagan beliefs and traditions and replace them with Christian ones instead. The case of the Disney movie Hercules, though, is a little different. Its Christianization was likely not deliberate, but it ends up reinforcing the hegemony of Christian narratives in our culture anyway.
Disney’s Hercules vastly revised the ancient Greek myth of Heracles to make it more “child-friendly” and more palatable to Western audiences. The resulting story, though, positions Hercules as a Christ figure—probably accidentally. This seems to imply that only stories with Christian morals and understandings of the world are acceptable as kids’ stories, and also shows how Christian influence seeps into everything in our pop culture narratives, whether we intend it to or not.
Find out more after the break! Spoilers for all of Hercules ahead.
Ah, Hercules. If Harry Potter was my older childhood, then Disney’s Hercules was my younger childhood, as it came out in 1997. It was one of the few new movies that I didn’t have to wait for my local Blockbuster to catch up on (unlike The Last Unicorn). I was super hyped about it from the moment I first heard it was coming out. Why? Because it was full of Greek people—just like me! See, representation matters!
My parents encouraged this, because even though modern Greeks share hardly anything culturally or religiously with ancient Greeks anymore, they are very proud of their classical heritage. Most Greek kids learn a ton about ancient Greek history and mythology from their families. So my parents had no problem letting me see this movie in theaters and watching it again and again once it came out on video. It’s the story of, well, Hercules, a super-strong son of Zeus raised on Earth who seeks to become a True Hero, and must fight against the evil Hades, god of the Underworld. It’s going to be hard to take off my nostalgia glasses for this one, but I’ll give it a shot in my spoilerific review below!
The other week, I had an uncharacteristic amount of free time amid a very busy season. So I went wild and had a full-out Redbox spree: four movies, three different Redbox machines, two days. Included among the four movies I rented were Hercules and The Legend of Hercules. I had thought it curious that there would be two big Hollywood movies about the same subject in the same year, and it was even more curious that the one, Hercules, did so much better at the box office. Since I hadn’t gotten around to seeing either in the movie theater like I had wanted to, I thought it would be fun to rent both and watch them back to back for comparison. I went in with low expectations, particularly for Legend of Hercules, thinking that the movies would be dull or outright bad, but bearable due to the lead actors’ Herculean physiques. In fact, I ended up finding both films genuinely enjoyable and even thought-provoking. Now, maybe my thoughts are just easily provoked, but each film was an intriguing blend of the political and the personal, and there were elements of both stories that stuck with me and kept me thinking long after they were over.
Why do they always use the Romanized “Hercules” instead of his original Greek name “Heracles”?
Okay, I’m not going to lie: after the failure that was the Percy Jackson movies, when I first saw that The Legend of Hercules was a thing, I got a little excited. My hopes of getting a movie about Greek mythology that doesn’t suck, however, seem to have been premature, because any optimism I had for the film died upon viewing the trailer.