Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lessons in Adolescence

This is the last from my Renaissance guest bloggers. Here's my friend Drew's thoughts on one of his faves, Hercules. Yes, it's out of order, as I covered Hercules two weeks ago. You can blame Drew for turning it in late.

If you’re a Disney animated movie, chances are you belong to a club. The $100 million club.

It’s not particularly exclusive. There’s no velvet rope, no bouncer, no list you have to be on. All you have to do to join is gross $100 million in ticket sales during your theatrical run. Pretty simple, really.

If you do that, you can mingle with your fellow members anytime. You can drop by and talk about books with Belle, watch soccer with the Beast and Aladdin, maybe even have a steak dinner with Simba and Tarzan. In fact, in this club, you can rub shoulders with every Renaissance Disney movie—except one.


Hercules grossed only $99 million dollars domestically. Not 100. 99. Missed it by a measly million dollars.

It’s a fascinating bit of symmetry that Hercules, a movie about a clumsy misfit who just wants to belong, is itself a bit of a misfit in the Disney catalogue, left on the outside of the $100 million club while everyone else parties inside. That symmetry is why, I think, it retains as much charm as it does, even while—objectively speaking—it’s not the classic that its predecessors were.

With few exceptions, Disney heroes and heroines are young adults working through the most readily accessible dimensions of growing up. Think Aladdin learning to be true to himself, Ariel craving new adventure, or Mulan struggling with her identity formation.

Hercules departs from those movies in the specificity with which it approaches young-adulthood. It is, by a marathon length, Disney’s most particularly adolescent movie.

Previous heroes were essentially glorified adults—theoretically 18, but practically adult in their vocabulary, movement and attitude. But Hercules, in his teenaged incarnation, is as gawky, overgrown, uncontrollable and accident-prone as any teenage boy ever was. He decimates an entire market square with his wild strength. Other kids call him ‘Jerk-ules’ and exclude him from their games. If there is a quintessential teenage feeling, it is that sense of “not belonging,” of having nowhere to fit in.

Those are universal feelings. To this day I can summon up, with remarkable clarity, the power of those teenage memories—of being misunderstood, not fitting in, feeling a little bit alone. I suspect you probably can, too. It's not very much fun. 

And it's this, I think, that accounts for some of why Hercules stumbled at the box office in the first place. Other Disney movies draw us back to rose-colored, exclamation-pointed memories of our teenage years: Growing up! Learning to love! Dreaming big! But Hercules firmly grounds us in adolescence’s hard, question-marked reality: Why am I so awkward? What’s my body doing? Do I fit in anywhere?

Hercules doesn't resolve those questions. Yes, it ends with true love winning and Hercules attaining immortality. But he also chooses to stay and live on earth with Meg, not ascend to Mt. Olympus. His choice means that he will always have to live in the in-between, never quite at home among humans and away from the place where his god-hood actually fits.

Sound familiar? The same adolescent tension vibrates through our own lives: not quite at home in a world that doesn't respect our Image-Of-God-ness, yet separated from the fullness of the Living God in whose context we make sense.

Hercules will never get into the $100 million club. It will spend eternity with its nose pressed to the glass, wondering why everyone else gets to go to the party. As Christians, we're lucky—like our physical adolescence, our time outside the party is temporary. And as for life here on earth, we take our cues from Herc—knowing that the tension is real, with no option but to live in it.

Drew Larson is the Editorial/Development Intern at InterVarsity. In the past, he maintained the world's only sports/comedy/theology essay blog, the Casual Footballer. He knows the words to more Disney songs than he will freely admit in mixed company, unless we are talking about A Goofy Movie, in which case, game on.

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