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So we're wrapping up Ancient Greece in my History of Art course, and the kids have just about had their fill of ionic columns and castrated marble sculptures and Homer and pointy-nosed naked dudes painted on vases. Tomorrow the kids are going to start their final project for the unit, which is a storytelling project: they have to research and then regale the class with their retelling of a story from Greek mythology. As a class we've already extensively covered nearly every facet of the Trojan War and the stories about Heracles, since I know that those are the themes and characters that we're going to be revisiting over and over again when we learn about Renaissance art. So for the storytelling project I forced the kids to sign up for stories that are more focused on the main Olympian gods and goddesses (i.e. Hades and Persephone, Apollo and Daphne, How Zeus Forced His Father to Barf and then Became the King of Everything, etc.) since, again, this is stuff that they're going to need to know once we hit up Renaissance art, but the official Core Content textbook barely mentions the Olympian gods and goddesses at all save for "Athena is pretty awesome and that's why the Parthenon was built." Yeah wow thank you textbook you suck.

Anywhoo, since we had extra time last week, a couple of girls in my 3rd period class asked if we could watch the Disney version of Hercules. Which is actually a completely legit request to make in Ms. K's History of Art class, since a) I had already shown them parts of The Princess and the Frog earlier this year because it is an absolutely pitch-perfect multi-plot-thread multi-character-arc example of the exposition-rising action-climax-falling action-resolution structure that I had to teach them, and b) we also watched the entirety of Yugo Sako's animated The Legend of Prince Ram because it's a much, much better way to teach the Ramayana to high school students than making them read any of the abbreviated English language texts currently available on the market.

So yeah, me and cartoon movies. A pretty good combination for these girls to be betting on. But I told them "I'll think about it" before making any promises. And then I went home that night and watched the movie for the first time in fourteen years, just to see if I could justify wringing enough educational value out of it to show it to the kids.

And oh my god you guys.

This movie.

This movie.

There are so many layers of erudite wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes about Greek art and mythology packed into this film that I just DID NOT GET when I was a high school student and watching it for the first time. I mean, yeah, I got all of the surface-level jokes, I loved all of the Flinstones-like graphing of incongruent modern elements onto the archaic setting, and I could pick out all of the places where the Heracles myth was changed to make the story more Disneyfied: Hera being Herc's mother instead of an antagonist, Hades acting in the role of a villain because the movie needed to follow a certain formula, Philoctetes being rewritten as Herc's trainer also because the movie needed to follow a certain formula, Phil being a satyr because lol satyrs, Pegasus being in the movie at all because winged horses are awesome, Hercules having to fight the Gorgon and the Minotaur because those would be the most recognizable monsters to movie audiences, the whole movie being about Hercules trying to become a "true hero" instead of "oh noes I need to redeem myself through heroic acts because WHOOPS I KILLED MY WIFE AND KIDS," and Megara being given a backstory and her own character arc - something which by the way I still very much appreciate that Disney decided to do, because the movie is so much better for it.

What I didn't understand fourteen years ago, however, was how very deliberately and very cleverly many of the decisions about the Disneyficiation of the story were made. In the Disney film, Nessus the Sexual Harassment Centaur is the very FIRST foe that Hercules fights, and is trying to assault Hercules's first love interest. MAXIMUM IRONY ALERT ON EVERY LEVEL. And Philoctetes lives on a deserted island! I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND WHY THAT WAS FUNNY until I had to brush up on my Sophocles and my Euripedes for the purposes of teaching my art history course. Speaking of Phil: He's a satyr! I used to think that Disney made Philoctetes a satyr for no reason other than LOL SATYRS but it turn out, no, there's a very specific reason why Phil is a satyr and it has to do with how satyrs were used in ancient Greek dramas and oh my god that is such a perfectly meta statement on the entire Hercules film itself that I don't even have words for how awesome that is. Not to mention all of the callouts to famous works of Greek art that are liberally sprinkled throughout the film. I mean, the Venus de Milo bit is obvious, but until recently I had no idea what the Bassae Frieze was or that it appeared for all of three seconds during the "Zero to Hero" musical number. I had never seen the Mycenae Warrior Vase before this year and that's why I could never figure out why all of the Thebians in the movie had those long, pointy noses. During the opening few seconds of the film, during the two-minute sequence in which Hercules and Phil arrive in Thebes, and of course during Megara's musical number in the garden - freeze frame that shit and OH MY GOD it's like every famous sculpture in the goddamn course textbook is making a cameo in this film. And yes, of course, this is on top of the nonstop stream of verbal and visual jokes that the movie is absolutely packed with from start to finish. It's a glorious film. It seems so stupid and so silly on the surface, just so much more "oh look Disney is just stomping all over another famous story and changing it completely to make it fit a Disney formula," but it's so much better than that.

In Mulan and Aladdin and even (ugh) Pocahontas, all of the changes made to the respective films' story, character, and visual design can be chalked up to either a) Disney underestimating the intelligence of its audience and/or b) just plain not bothering to Do the Research. In Hercules, however, changes made to the story, character, and visual design of the film are all deliberate and well-planned. The changes ARE the jokes, most of them deliberately obvious but more than a handful of them very much not so. Hercules never condescends to its audience; even when it's taking up screen time with dumb jokes like SATYRS LIKE BOOBS LOL it's still managing to sneak in a golden deer in the background because goddammit this movie is going to make either a hidden or an overt reference to every single one of the Twelve Labors even if most of its intended kid audience is never going to see or get more subtle of these references. (I am so not kidding about that last example, by the way.)

And it's definitely not an accident that both Zeus's nipples and Hercules's ears are drawn as Minoan Swirls, either.

Every single little detail in this movie - I mean EVERY detail, right down to the fact that the top of Zeus's head is supposed to look like the top of an ionic column - has been carefully thought through to include some clever reference to Greek art and architecture. Disney's Hercules might (as a whole) look and sound absolutely nothing like the ancient stories of Heracles, but at least we know that's NOT because of anybody at Disney failing to do the research. They must have researched the shit out of EVERYTHING about Heracles. And then they just decided to change it all, but they changed it in such a way that even the changes themselves end up as wink-wink-nudge-nudge references to the ancient stories.

Yeah, like the irony of Philoctetes living on a deserted island. And being a satyr because of what "satyr" means in terms of Greek drama. Just now getting those jokes. Fourteen years after the fact.

Damn, Disney. I didn't know you had that level of self-awareness in you.