Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 27 June 1997
As if it wasn't bad enough that Disney warped an historical account (never mind that it was probably heavily embellished), then followed it up with an evisceration of one of the greatest works of literature ever, they now turned their mighty axe of Disnifying onto a classic Greek myth.
At least, that's how the company's critics would see it. In truth, Disney was not doing much more than they had done, successfully, in the past -- taken existing works and putting their own spin on them to make entertaining animated features. And neither Pocahontas nor The Hunchback of Notre Dame would have made good family films without the revisions applied by Disney.
Hercules is the same way, although perhaps less so -- but being mythology, Hercules' adventures are hardly set in stone anyway.
John Musker and Ron Clements, directors of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin were back at the helm for this film, for which they took a tack similar to that of Aladdin. Their focus here -- unlike, say, in The Lion King or Hunchback -- was less on the animation and the music than on humor and sheer entertainment value. The story of Hercules seems to make that focus an odd choice, but it turns out that it works -- mythological stories can be interpreted so many different ways that they can fit several different styles.
Most people know the story of Hercules, but it was changed somewhat for this film, mainly for dramatic reasons. Hades, lord of the Underworld, is jealous of his brother Zeus's power and prestige as ruler of the sky and the other gods. He hatches a plan to take over Mt. Olympus, but is told by The Fates that the newborn god Hercules (son of Zeus and Hera) is destined to thwart the attempt.
He sends his minions Pain and Panic to kidnap and kill the baby by using a special serum to make him mortal, but they botch the job and Herc survives, retaining only his god-like strength. Herc is adopted and grows up aware only that he is different -- awkardly so. He visits a temple of Zeus, where his father tells him that to return to Mount Olympus, he must become a true hero. Sent off (upon his mount Pegasus) to train with the satyr Philoctetes, then forced to deal with Hades' machinations and the enigmatic Megara, Hercules discovers that heroism might not mean quite what he thought it meant...
The story centers around that definition of heroism, skewering modern American concepts of what makes someone a hero. See, Herc thinks that being a hero means killing beasts, saving people's lives, and becoming famous. He becomes so famous for his exploits that "they slapped his face on every vase," he endorses sports drinks and sandals with his picture on them, and he even has an action figure! But he learns that it's more important what's in his heart, and that he can even be a hero without his super strength. A lesson, perhaps, that could be learned by many today, who continue to look for heroism in the wrong places.
The writing is fairly solid, with good moments of (often anachronistic) humor. The city of Thebes, where Herc goes to prove that his training was successful, is called "The Big Olive;" Herc becomes a modern-style celebrity, with his face on billboards and merchandise; Hades is a fast-talking, wheeling-and-dealing businessman type. Characterization is good, with even Hercules going through believable changes. The strongly independent and sarcastic Megara is also well-written, showing her inner conflict and the reasons for it well. Hades, whose part was re-written entirely when James Woods was hired to voice him, is, perhaps, not as menancing as he could be (except in a shady-businessman sort of way), but at least he's funny.
Music is not as prominent in Hercules as it had been in The Lion King and Hunchback. Alan Menken teamed this time with David Zippel, and while the music is good, the lyrics are probably a step down from Stephen Schwartz's work in Hunchback and Pocahontas. Menken draws from a wide variety of musical traditions to create the soundtrack, from American Southern Gospel to Motown.
The narrators of the story (after a brief, dry, PBS-style attempt by Charlton Heston) are the Muses, who here take the form of a quintet of Gospel singers. They sing, gospel-style, though the back story, then take a reduced role for a while. A young Hercules sings about his lonliness and longing in the ballad "Go The Distance," also recorded as a pop arrangement by Michael Bolton. When Herc meets up with Phil, the satyr sings of Herc being his "One Last Hope" for training a successful hero. The Muses return for a rocking "Zero to Hero" as the now-buff Hercules makes his mark on Greece and becomes the world's first superstar. And Megara realizes she's falling for Hercules as she sings the Motown-style power-ballad "I Won't Say I'm in Love," backed by the Muses. The songs and score, taken as a complete work, don't exactly form a cohesive whole, certainly not as they did in Hunchback, but the individual songs are good.
The voice work keeps up a long tradition of quality, with the cast led by James Woods as Hades. Woods' rapid-fire ad lib delivery prompted a re-write for the character, and the character draw some comparisons to Robin Williams' Genie. While Hades is a funny character, his evil intentions remain clear at all times.
Popular actor Danny DeVito voiced the philandering Philoctetes (who is even shorter than DeVito), and Rip Torn played the king of the gods. Matt Frewer and Bobcat Goldthwait voiced Panic and Pain, Hades' useless assistants (aka the comic relief). The voice of Megara, Susan Egan, originated the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway but lends a much more cynical tone to this character. Veteran actor Hal Holbrook played Herc's adoptive father, and bandleader Paul Schaffer had an amusing turn as Hermes (who mysteriously looks just like Schaffer).
"Go The Distance" was nominated for a Best Music, Song Academy Award, but was otherwise ignored at the Oscars. The history of Disney's nominations was beginning to imply that the Academy felt compelled to automatically nominate that year's Disney film's ballad for an award (although "Out There" and "God Help the Outcasts" from Hunchback were both ignored). I've often disagreed with the Academy's choices for the best song(s) from a film, and Hercules is no exception.
The film was brought to the small screen for a run as animated series. The TV show changed the film's facts slightly, claiming that Hercules' training with Phil was long-term, and that he continued to attend high school during that time. The episodes usually dealt with Hercules' attempts to overcome his outcast status among his peers.
Hercules was a modest success, but the decline in popularity three years after The Lion King was clear. The reasons for this are less clear, but something turned moviegoers off. It may have been simply Disney fatigue. Eight years after The Little Mermaid, Disney had seven films in the can; the seven films before Mermaid stretched back sixteen years. Maybe parents were growing tired of the formula -- outcast hero + attractive love interest + evil villain + wacky sidekicks + lots of singing.
But although not wildly successful, the formula was still successful enough, and Hercules is a perfect example of it. Like Aladdin, its spiritual predecessor, it's no great work of art, but it's a good, entertaining family film. Regardless, Disney was about to start playing with the formula a bit, taking it in some new directions...
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.