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How Hercules Set the Stage for Modern Disney Protagonists

Disney’s classic Hercules turns 25.

While Hercules (1997) had an initially disappointing box office performance, it has since become a huge cult classic. Megara has become a beloved character, the music has been embraced by fans, and Hades is one of Disney’s most popular villains (despite actor James Woods’ less than stellar public statements). Quotable, meme-able, and full of iconic characters and moments, it is safe to say that Hercules is a staple for many fans of musicals and Disney movies.

Another important feature of Hercules is the way that it set the stage for modern Disney protagonists like Rapunzel, Moana, and Mirabel. While researching my dissertation on musicals, I identified three distinct stages of Disney protagonists based on the song structures of their films: classic Disney protagonists, Disney Renaissance protagonists, and modern Disney protagonists. While Hercules falls into the second category, it introduced some important structural strategies that would set the stage for the more recent era.

One of the most important song types for Disney is the “I Want” song. The “I Want” song is a song near the beginning of a musical (usually the second or third song) where the protagonist establishes their goals and desires, giving the audience a sense of what they will be pursuing throughout the story. These songs tend to be among the most popular Disney songs: think “Part of Your World,” “Belle,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” or “Reflection.” When many people think of favourite Disney songs, many of them are often “I Want” songs.

Part of Your world from The Little Mermaid
Image: Disney

Before the modern era beginning with Tangled (2010), they were also often the only song or solo that the protagonist sings. Ariel’s only song is “Part of Your World,” Mulan’s only solo is “Reflection,” Simba’s only solo is “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” and Hercules’ only song is “I Can Go the Distance.” Even love songs are often sung by supporting characters (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”), or they’re duets, so the protagonist’s voice is most heavily associated with their “I Want” song.

This association of the protagonist with their “I Want” song really helps when looking at how Disney frames their protagonists. If you look at the majority of “I Want” songs before the Disney Renaissance started in 1989, they’re often about wanting something to happen to you. Snow White wants a prince to come to her; Cinderella wants to escape from her suffering through dreams; Aurora from Sleeping Beauty sings about how she hopes someone will find her if her “heart keeps singing.” These songs are about longing for an external person to come in and help the protagonist, or for something to happen to them, rather than a desire to take action and do something themselves. In the case of female protagonists, they’re also often about men.

The Little Mermaid was groundbreaking because it portrayed a female Disney protagonist who wants to do something, rather than have something done to her. It also has nothing to do with men: Ariel wants to learn new things about humans. This led to a wave of Disney protagonists whose desires were all about wanting to take action rather than wanting someone to happen to them, and they were never about romance. Belle wants adventure. Simba wants to be king. Quasimodo wants to escape confinement. Mulan wants to reconcile her inner desires with her external persona. Hercules wants to find his way home. Tracing this one single song type shows how developments in the musical introduction of Disney protagonists drove a dramatic change in how they were written throughout the films.

How does all of this relate to Hercules, then? If “I Can Go the Distance” is just another example of the confident, driven “I Want” song that was already introduced with The Little Mermaid, what makes it any different? Anyone who has tried putting “I Can Go The Distance” on a party playlist likely knows the answer: it has an extremely long scene in the middle that effectively cuts the song in half. It’s impossible to listen to “I Can Go the Distance” all the way through without being interrupted by a lot of dialogue, making it a strange listening experience. I want to suggest that this splitting of the song into two distinct halves is part of what makes it so significant.

One of the biggest problems with restricting Disney protagonists to “I Want” songs is that it prevents them from ever truly expressing confidence or celebration of their successes. Even if they are driven and assured that they are “ready to stand,” they are still signing about what they intend to do or are ready to do, never about what they have actually done. It’s still confidence rooted in future aspirations rather than present actions. As confident as these songs may sound, there’s still something missing from them that keeps the listener stuck in the realm of aspiration or intention, and they’re never given the musical closure of success or accomplishment.

How do you maintain the aspirational power of the “I Want” song without restraining it to the realm of plans or dreams? This question would be answered a few years later by Moana, where the initial “I Want” song is split into three movements, scattered throughout the musical. The film starts with “How Far I’ll Go,” which is a classic Renaissance-style “I Want” song like “Part of Your World.” It then moves into “How Far I’ll Go (Reprise),” which follows Moana as she jumps on a boat and begins her journey: she is no longer singing about what she plans to do, but is celebrating what she is currently doing. This is similar to Tangled’s choice to have the reprise of “When Will My Life Begin?” happen after she has left her tower, rather than right before.

The exact same melody then comes back again with “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” at the end of the film. Moana sings about her accomplishments and confidence, and how she has grown to become “everything she’s learned and more,” using the same melody as her earlier songs of longing and ambition. Moana pushes the “I Want” song further than it traditionally goes: by splitting it into three separate songs and putting each at a different stage of her journey, the song is able to track a wide range of character development while still maintaining the emotional drive that makes fans love the song type so much.

Moana’s idea of dividing the “I Want” song up to get more out of it is something that Hercules anticipated when it split its own “I Want” song in half. The first half of the song sees Hercules passively wishing that he could find somewhere where he belongs. Then, after a scene where his parents tell him that he is a son of Zeus, he jumps back into a more confident version of the song where he sets out to find the temple of Zeus. This structure anticipates the first two parts of Moana’s “I Want” song: putting a scene in the middle of the song allows Hercules to start the second half taking action and doing something, rather than simply planning to do something. While it misses the third stage, where Moana sings about what she has done, the song’s split structure sets the tone for a more ambitious use of the “I Want” song that spurs it from planning into action.

Hercules definitely didn’t introduce the concept of the reprise to Disney. However, it does use the reprise in a more ambitious way, While “Part of Your World” and “Belle” both have reprises, the reprises don’t quite function the same way. “Part of Your World (Reprise)” is just a sadder version of the original song. “Belle (Reprise)” also ends on a sadder and slower note, and it also still focuses largely on what Belle plans to do (find adventure and not marry Gaston) rather than what she is actively doing at the moment. Once Belle leaves her small town, the only other song she sings is not about herself but about Beast (“Something There”). “I Can Go the Distance” is the first Disney “I Want” song to show the protagonist actively doing something (going to the temple of Zeus) rather than simply laying out plans or identifying ambitions, and this shift from wanting to doing is facilitated by the scene in the middle.

Hercules heads to the temple of Zeus
Image: Disney

While it is impossible to prove that the composers of Moana were actively inspired by Hercules when they chose to set up “How Far I’ll Go” as a three-part song, it is impossible to deny that Hercules’ music spurs a different set of emotions than previous Disney “I Want” songs. While The Little Mermaid gave audiences the chance to feel confident in their ability to do the things they want to do, Hercules pushed this towards a song about actively taking the first real steps towards doing them.

This then set the stage for Moana, making Hercules an important step in the development of Disney’s iconic “I Want” songs towards something that gives a sense of musical and narrative closure that would come to define Disney protagonists in the modern era. While Disney characters like Elsa and Mirabelle have developed even further, singing a large variety of song types and no longer being restricted to just their “I Want” songs, Hercules remains an important step in how Disney structures their protagonists’ musical journeys.

How <em>Hercules</em> Set the Stage for Modern Disney Protagonists
Written By

Steven Greenwood is a Montreal-based writer & director, and the Artistic Director of Home Theatre Productions. He holds a PhD from McGill University with a focus on queer cultural history, and he teaches university courses in film, theatre, and popular culture. His work is influenced by his passion for queer history & culture, and he is a fan of all things geeky, pulpy, campy & queer. You can find him on Twitter @steven_c_g or on Instagram @steven.c.greenwood.

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