‘Hercules’ at 25 – Review

Hercules (1997)
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Screenwriters: Ron Clements, John Musker, Don McEnery, Bob Shaw, Irene Mecchi
Starring: Tate Donovan, Susan Egan, James Woods, Danny DeVito, Rip Torn, Bobcat Goldthwait, Matt Frewer, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Barrie, Paul Shaffer

Following their latest attempt to get their dream project Treasure Planet off the starting blocks (which would at long last come to fruition in 2002), Disney Renaissance MVP directors Ron Clements and John Musker were asked to helm a prestige animation based very loosely on Greek myths and legends. The result was Hercules, a colourful sitcom-meets-Superman-riff in sandals. It received a mixed reception upon its release in 1997 and is perceived to have under-performed at the box office, but a quarter of a century on how does it play?

Sing along if you know the words: “Who puts the glad in gladiator?”…

In Hercules we follow the eponymous son (Tate Donovan) of Zeus (Rip Torn) who is kidnapped as a baby from Olympus and made mortal as part of a power grab by his uncle Hades (James Woods), which also involves unleashing the Titans on the gods. Growing up on Earth as a clumsy, freakishly strong outcast, Herc discovers he must prove himself a true hero in order to have is godhood restored, so seeks out legendary hero trainer Philoctetes (Danny DeVito) for help, before Megara (Susan Egan) enters the picture and complicates everything considerably for “wonder-boy”.

In a reference to all the old biblical and sword-and-sandals epics the film references, the first thing we hear is Charlton Heston’s very brief cameo as the gravelly voiced narrator. It would have probably been more appropriate to have someone who was is in Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans, but most of them were either dead or not as recognisable as Ben-Hur, The 10 Commandments and Planet of the Apes star Heston. 

The next thing we hear is the first number in the catchiest Renaissance era Disney soundtrack (thanks to its heavy gospel influence). As exposition dumps go, the Muses’ belting out of the Greek mythology highlights reel with accompanying animation on an Aegean-style clay pot is one of the best routes you could’ve gone. Alan Menken composed the score and David Zippel provided the lyrics, but it is the powerful vocals and gorgeous harmonies of Lillias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan and Vanéese Y Thomas as the omniscient Muses that really makes the music so memorable and also elevates the story. 

Disney’s hunt for an Oscar and thereby grown-up recognition, beginning with Beauty and the Beast and continuing through Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, had not yielded the desired results and had started to lose momentum at this point. Because of this Hercules is, for the most part, aiming to be a more light-hearted crowd-pleaser in the vein of their earlier work.

The distinctive character designs were inspired by Gerald Scarfe cartoons filtered through the prism of Ancient Greek art. The characters are all hugely expressive and work well in the more expressly comic set sequences especially, but the gradual introduction of early CG elements – most notably in the four-minutes-to-watch, over-a-year-to-animate hydra battle – have, perhaps understandably, not aged all that well.

“Is this an audience or a mosaic?”. The Lord of the Underworld, Hades, is one of Disney’s most memorable villains, no question. While modern audiences might bump up against actor James Woods’ increasingly toxic public persona in recent years, his huckster Hades is the perfect balance of funny and sinister, and manages to eclipse Herc himself without much effort. Danny DeVito’s Phil is a pretty effective comic foil for the earnest but vanilla hero, even if DeVito can do this kind of role in his sleep. Thankfully Susan Egan’s Meg, full of heartache and regret and contradictions, is one of the most interesting characters in Disney with the best song of the Renaissance (“I Won’t Say I’m in Love”) to boot. 

The majority of Disney films from the last 30 years preach the idea of self-acceptance, and this film also has “Being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero”, which is a lesson a lot of famous people with a platform today could stand to learn. The hero’s arc being a collage of sports, superhero and celebrity culture movie tropes works in broad strokes but it would be nice for a little more nuance in our lead, at least enough to match his antagonist and his love interest. 

The film does have its fair share of problems. The tone, though generally lighter than most other Renaissance movies, does sometimes violently lurch, going from a gag like Hades having his flaming hair blown out like a candle straight into a major character’s apparent death. All the plot conditions and coincidental timings of Hades’ plot are nothing if not contrived, and it would have been nice to have actually seen our hero grow more organically through his labours rather than all but one of them being confined to a flashy one-scene montage. Also, why doesn’t Hades get a villain song? You can really picture him enjoying some sleazy lounge number.

Hercules remains a crowd-pleaser with great music, high-quality animation and some memorable vocal performances, but it is let down slightly by Disney seemingly not settling on what the film was supposed to be before production began. It tries to be too many things at once rather than really nailing on one genre or giving enough attention to exploring what makes its central character tick. Being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero, and being entertaining isn’t the same as being a great movie.

Score: 16/24

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