You can rely on Disney’s animated movies for delightful characters, skillful animation and catchy songs. And when a story is original, or is a retelling of a fable, that’s really all you need. But what happens when Disney presents a story that also claims to be an ancient myth but gets it all wrong?
Greek and Roman myths are a subject that intrigues many students. Kids are drawn to the descriptive re-tellings of romance, power and pain that took place in the heavens and on Earth. The problem is that students often find the ancient texts and classical re-tellings dry or hard to understand. When you want the lessons to spring to life, film is often a good option.
Unfortunately, finding a movie that gets mythology right, or at least right enough to use in class, is a challenge. Disney’s Hercules is not a film anyone should use to teach anything about the Greek myths. The story is intermixed with other myths, the classical references are wrong; at least one important character is from Christian religious teachings and not those of the ancients. Finally, the character of Hercules bears a strong resemblance to a famous comic book character.
However, a unit on Greek and Roman mythology that has thoroughly covered the story of Heracles/Hercules (the Greek and Roman translations of the name into English, respectively), can come to an entertaining but educational conclusion by using Disney’s Hercules as the basis for a test. The prompts: List out and describe the ways in which the plot, the characters and the dialog in the movie are inconsistent with the Greek myth. The prompt might also been broken down into specific categories, like the Origin of Hercules, Characters, Plot, 12 Labors, After the 12 Labors, and the Death of Hercules. Require students to supply at least 3 differences for each category.
Give students the prompt before they watch the movie. Tell them to take brief notes and that they will be given a chance after the film to list and describe the differences. The goal is to list four important differences and ten less important changes. An extra credit question can be to name the comic book hero who the Disney Hercules is most like and to give the reasons why.
Below is one example of a major inaccuracy that should be identified in students’ responses.
Example: The relationship between Heracles and his parents is changed completely. In the film, Zeus and Hera are his loving parents. In the myths, Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, the wife of a general and former king of Mycenae named Amphitryon. Zeus took the form of Amphitryon and lay with Alcmene when the general was away in battle. Hera is not happy with Zeus’ infidelity and comes to hate the child when Zeus tricks her into nursing the infant for a few weeks.
That is a just an example of the inaccuracies, large and small, that appear throughout the film. By presenting students with this fun and thought-provoking challenge, you can use films like this to reinforce lessons about mythology and test students in an unusual and interesting way.