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Disney’s Future Live-Action Remakes Should Take Note
This has been a tough year for Disney (not that you’d know it from their profit and loss statements, of course). The House of Mouse has been pummeled by critics and fans alike for churning out a cavalcade of soulless live-action remakes, from The Lion King to Aladdin. Despite its all-star cast, The Lion King was denounced as a bland if visually stunning do-over, and Aladdin flopped critically for its plodding, charmless retelling of a larger-than-life story.
Yet over at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, The Public Theater’s Public Works Program has mounted a spirited stage production of Hercules–one that Disney should study closely as they continue barreling down the risky path of rebooting classic films from their golden age. Adapted from the beloved 1997 film by the same name, this Hercules is lively, political, and unmistakably contemporary. It retains everything viewers know and love from the original, while also introducing new material to enrich the themes and deepen the character work. With five new songs from Alan Menken and David Zippel, who wrote the music and lyrics for the film, this production rewards fans without falling into the trap of fan service, ushering the familiar story into the twenty-first century with the added intrigue of a more populated, democratic interpretation. This should be the way forward for Disney—keep the good, chuck the outdated, and lean into the themes that make these stories endure.
Keep the good, chuck the outdated, and lean into the themes that make these stories endure.
For those who miraculously don’t know the story, a refresher course: Hercules is born to Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the Greek gods, then kidnapped in his infancy by minions of Hades, the god of the underworld who seeks to kill him for fear of a prophecy predicting that Hercules will thwart his plan for cosmic domination. The bumbling minions fail to kill Hercules, leaving him sapped of his immortality on a hillside, only for a kindhearted couple to find him and raise him as their own, despite his inexplicable, godlike strength. After 18 years of feeling like an outcast, Hercules discovers his true lineage, and Zeus delivers an ultimatum: Hercules can only return to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, if he becomes a hero. With the help of Philoctetes, a world-weary, wise-cracking trainer, Hercules embarks on a storied journey to become a hero.
Hercules learns the truth of his parentage.
Jelani Alladin (best known before now as Kristoff in Broadway’s Frozen) stars as Herc himself, infusing the role with athleticism, humor, and a winning, boyish dorkiness. In his Hercules, we see new layers of vulnerability and interior life, as in a moment when he weeps to Phil that nobody cares about him as a person—they only want him if he’s a hero. Alladin’s Hercules asks us to question heroism as an archetype versus a lived experience, to ask how the heroes we know through stories must have felt as they lived their trials.
Krysta Rodriguez (of Smash and Spring Awakening) is sensational as Megara, the tough-talking servant of Hades unwillingly working against Hercules. Meg has long loomed large in Disney fandom as a feminist hero, and this production smartly foregrounds that characterization while updating it for 2019’s discourse. In a new song, a pants-clad Meg imagines a world without men, envisioning it as a utopia where she could do as she pleases. A dopey, lovestruck Hercules, seeking to demonstrate his feminist credentials, replies clumsily, “My mom’s a woman.” Much like Hercules, this Meg is more raw than her on-screen counterpart, as we see in her bitter tirade about the worthlessness of friendship and love, where she snarls that it’s best to go through life alone so as to avoid hurt and disappointment.
Hercules and Megara face off.
In the Disney film, the Greek townspeople are accessories to Hercules’ journey, brought into the frame only to cheer, jeer, and crack wise where appropriate. Yet in this play, over 100 New Yorkers from ages 5 to 78 appear as the townspeople, and they’re far from sidelined. When Hades releases the Titans, a mythic group of ancient gods out for blood, the townspeople say to Hercules, who’s been sapped of his powers, “You were there for us. Let us be there for you.” In a departure from the film, which sees Hercules fight the Titans single-handedly, the play leaves him out of the fray altogether, allowing the townspeople to save the day.
In the story’s familiar penultimate moment, when Hercules is invited to return to Olympus and forsake his mortal life, the play reimagines the weight of that choice by peopling the scene not just with Meg, as in the film, but with his adoptive parents and the townspeople, who have become a chosen family, of sorts. The scene juxtaposes this group against the family he was born into, who aren’t the warm, goofy gods you remember from the film—they’re strict, imperious taskmasters whose affection is entirely conditional, predicated on Hercules’ achievements rather than his inherent worthiness of love. When Hercules chooses a mortal life with the lovely new line, “To be human is divine,” it’s as much a romantic choice as it is a personal one. It’s a choice to remain with his “real true friends,” as he calls the townspeople, who love him for who he is, not for the deeds he’s done. On this level, the play deepens the film’s touching resolution, allowing Hercules to choose selfhood and friendship in addition to romantic love.
Hercules chooses to live a mortal life with the townspeople (foreground), as opposed to an immortal life with the gods (background).
The play’s updates aren’t just thematic—they’re political, too. In an early scene, after Hercules has clumsily caused a ruckus at the market in an accidental use of his superhuman strength, two armed soldiers force him to his knees and tie his hands behind his back, calling to mind our culture’s rampant police brutality. Later, when Hercules arrives in Thebes, the “Big Olive” of Greece, to offer his help to the downtrodden townspeople, one woman cracks, “Can you help me find affordable housing?” Another asks that Hercules work to improve their civic discourse; still another wants him to solve income inequality. Meanwhile, shades of Donald Trump appear in Hades, who sings about “the art of the deal” in a new song about how no one can outsmart him. In a line that swipes at our do-gooder celebrity culture, Zeus admonishes Hercules, “You’ve become a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero.”
Indeed this production leans hard on of-the-moment updates, but it also zeroes in on that timeless question at the story’s core: what makes a hero? For this production to cast a black actor in the role of Hercules is no accident, nor is it a lark that the people of Thebes, young and old, male and female, are the ones who fight the Titans, as opposed to Hercules. Like the film, the play argues that heroism is about heart, but it expands the definition of who a hero can be—it argues that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and that heroism has as much to do with communities banding together as it does extraordinary acts by individual people.
In considering the Disney remake-aissance, it’s important to remember that the original films we know and love are already remakes. Disney stories don’t exist in vacuums—in fact, many of them are already retellings as it is, derived from mythology, fairy tales, history, Shakespeare, and other such sources. The joy and purpose of art isn’t just the making of it, but the remaking—the reimagining, the tinkering, the adapting for new cultural context. This is why we tell stories to begin with—so that we may retell them, again and again.
It’s no crime for Disney to recycle its beloved cultural properties, but to do so with the profound corporate soullessness of films like The Lion King and Aladdin is criminal indeed. Why does Disney insist on tying one hand behind its back, on limiting itself to shot-for-shot remakes when the rewards of reinterpretation are so much greater? Art exists in conversation, as The Public’s Hercules understands, and Disney can only benefit from loosening its chokehold on the wheel. If Disney doesn’t consider how these stories should live, breathe, and change for a new generation of fans, there’s no telling the damage they’ll do to the august reputation they’ve worked so hard to build.
Up next, Disney is remaking Mulan, The Lady and the Tramp, The Little Mermaid, Snow White, The Sword in the Stone, and Lilo and Stitch. Here’s hoping they think outside the box.