Setting the Scene and Establishing Audience Engagement: The use of settings and classical backdrops in Disney’s Hercules

Amy Arezzolo recently completed her Masters of Ancient History at the University of New England, and is working on contributions to the Our Mythical Childhood survey of children’s culture influenced by Classical Antiquity. Here she discusses the importance of understanding how backgrounds work in animated film, focusing on the popular Disney film, Hercules (1997). This is an extract from a paper she recently presented at the Antiquity in Media Studies zoom conference, hosted by the Society for Classical Studies (US).

Establishing a Classical Background–Hercules

Through the tale of its eponymous character, Hercules discovering what it means (and takes) to become a ‘True Hero’, Disney’s Hercules (1997) offers an imaginative interpretation of Ancient Greece to an audience largely unfamiliar with its imagery or stories. To engage this audience, Hercules’ animators drew on varying artistic and architectural styles as well as countless artefacts that existed throughout antiquity, establishing for the film a full and ‘lived-in’ environment  that was recognisable for viewers influenced by preconceived notions about the appearance of Ancient Greece. Here, we examine some elements of how the backdrops support the film and establish it as classical.

Heavenly Gates of Olympus

These generalisations begin from the outset of the film. For instance, ideas about a heavenly Olympus set the scene early on. After the prologue in which a narrator (voiced by Charlton Heston) and the Muses establish the premise of Hercules, the camera pans throughout Ancient Greece and gradually rises through the clouds towards Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek Gods. Upon entry, viewers are first presented with a grand vista of two large and splendid golden gates adorned with lightning bolts and Ionic columns.

Within the narrative, these gates are one of the first times that the audience encounters Mount Olympus and in order to convey to the audience that this domain belongs to the ‘good’ characters, are an example of biblical allusions to heaven. The gates equate Olympus with Heaven and are a motif that had previously been used in previously released animated feature films such as All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989). Animators from Hercules ultimately make use of this Christianising motif in order to present Olympus to the audience in terms that they would easily understand .and recognise

Colouring and textures also serve to reinforce the recognition of Olympus as a heaven-like realm. A range of pink, lavender and blue hues as well as soft cloudlike structures present a serene and comforting image of the Olympian complex. As the camera pans from the gates to Olympus itself, the biblical allusion to Heaven via the imagery of Olympus as a city in the sky is made apparent but it is specifically situated in a classical context. Through the use of classical buildings and particularly, Ionic columns that are increasingly emphasised in a sequence of panning shots that show the Greek gods gathering to celebrate the birth of Hercules. Combinations such as these, wherein both the characters and the settings are focal points in the same scene firmly convey to the audience that Hercules, despite the biblical allusions that construct a ‘Heavenly Olympus’ is ultimately set within both an ancient and mythological past.

Hellish Hades

These classical devices which include both the architecture and specifically, the columns are also adopted in representations of the underworld. To a great extent, the structures used in the scene introducing the Underworld are almost identical to initial representations of Olympus, save for colouring. By providing almost identical placement of the buildings and designs found in scenes of both Olympus and the Underworld, it becomes easier for the audiences to ascertain that these realms are both celestial planes. Colour, on the other hand contributes to developing a clear binary between the  ‘Good and Heavenly’ Olympus through pinks, purples, and light blues and the ‘Bad and Hellish’ Underworld through the use of greys, blacks and midnight blue that project a sense of gloom and dread onto the surrounding atmosphere which only serves to later amplify the significance of Hercules’ willingness to sacrifice himself for Meg.

Art and Architectural Styles 

The mortal world, however, draws on historical artifacts to convey a sense of realism, using ancient art and architectural styles. Rather than be specific to a certain period of time, a closer examination of various scenes reveals that the animators have drawn upon various examples that date from as early as the Bronze Age to as late as the Roman Imperial Period under the Emperor Trajan wherein in Trajan’s column makes an appearance in a panning shot of Thebes where the Cyclops searches for Hercules in the third act of the film. 

Notably, examples of this are littered throughout the film. For instance, the famed wall painting of both the Papyri and Lilies that are part of the Akrotiri frescoes discovered on  modern-day Santorini and date to the Bronze Age period, feature on the walls in Hercules’ home that he shares with his adoptive parents, Amphitryon and Alcmene. Where the two frescoes were discovered separately, within the film they are combined to fill the blank space behind Hercules and to provide a warm, vibrant, and homely atmosphere. 

Likewise, in a scene later on in the film where Hercules is having his portrait done by a vase painter (with a nod to his iconic accoutrements of both a lion skin and a club), the surrounding room harks back to both the architectural style of the Bronze Age palace of Knossos (or at the very least, archaeologist Arthur Evans’ interpretation of the complex)  as well as its striking red colour, while the walls depicting several leaping deer echo the second style wall paintings that were discovered in Pompeii. 

As both of these examples demonstrate, clear allusions are made to art from throughout antiquity. Whether or not these combinations are time-sensitive or accurate is not the real issue. Rather, Hercules’ animators consciously borrowed elements that date throughout antiquity to foster a universally recognisable image of Ancient Greece. Such an approach supports viewing the settings of Hercules as dynamic entities that can foster audience investment in the plotlines. As this film acutely demonstrates, the construction of scenes across Olympus, the Underworld, and tdhe mortal realm which feature a host of recognisable shapes and styles help draw the viewer into Hercules’ world and suspend their disbelief at the fantastical world the characters are inhibiting. Through this process, audiences are then ready to focus their attention on the themes ultimately promoted by Hercules. 

–Amy Arezzolo

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