|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 01 August 2000|
With its slinky, stylized characters from designer Gerald Scarfe (who did the animated sequences in ‘Pink Floyd’s The Wall’), ‘Hercules’ doesn’t physically look much like previous Disney animated films, and its boisterous, hip, kooky jumble of Greek mythology and Hollywood in-jokes would be enough to set Homer’s head spinning.
This is not the legend according to Bullfinch, as even the opening sequence makes abundantly clear. A narrator - the authoritative voice of Charlton Heston, no less - is cut off mid-exposition by a quintet of singing Muses, who step off an urn to deliver their version of "The Gospel Truth" in an early musical highlight in Chapter 2.
In this ‘Hercules,’ the title character is the son of Greek gods Zeus (voiced by Rip Torn) and Hera (rather than, as tradition has it, the offspring of a liaison between Zeus and a married mortal queen). Baby Hercules is made mortal during a failed assassination attempt by underworld deity Hades (voiced by James Woods), who yearns to bring down Zeus and the other Olympian gods. However, Hercules (voiced as an adult by Tate Donovan) retains his godlike strength - along with superhuman klutziness. Adopted by mortals, he learns his true parentage when he comes of age. Hercules may regain his godhood and return to Mount Olympus if he proves himself a true hero. Seeing this as an Olympic challenge (in the modern sense of the term), Hercules finds a reluctant trainer in the satyr Philoctetes (voiced by Danny DeVito) and becomes a celebrity - but true heroism is called for when Hades unveils his "hostile takeover plan."
The colors are traditionally Disney bright, but the shapes are more angular and sly-looking here. The storyline is easy to follow and the characters are likable, including bad/good girl Megara (voiced by Susan Egan), who’s more overtly seductive and worldly than most Disney love interests. Hercules may be a wee bit bland, but he’s a good soul and his horse Pegasus - Herc’s best friend in this version - is a grand creation.
It’s not too surprising that the filmmakers opted to take out some of the darker elements of the Hercules legend. It’s also understandable why Hercules’ adventures here include not only some of his own traditional exploits but those normally attributed to other Greek heroes. The material covering Herc’s childhood seems to borrow more from Superman than from B.C. lore, but even this works decently in context (though it may feel pretty familiar to viewers of all ages conversant with Clark Kent’s early years). The Hercules-vs.-monsters stuff in Chapters 16, 17 and in the climax is smashingly executed and the various evil creatures look great, though very small children who frighten easily may be alarmed.
The songs, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by David Zippel, are a mixed bag, though all are reproduced with clarity on the DVD. The high-octane gospel-style expository spiels from the Muses in Chapters 2 and 17 are mightily entertaining, but some of the other numbers slow things down (as do the flirtation scenes between Hercules and Meg). Extras on the DVD include a standard making-of short and a music video of Ricky Martin singing the big power ballad ‘Go the Distance’ in Spanish.
The most curious aspect of ‘Hercules’ is its knowing send-up of Hollywood-esque fame, when Herc becomes not only the savior but the pin-up boy of Greek civilization. Most of the jokes about merchandising are funny (if gentle, which makes sense, considering the Disney source), and pay off in some nice sight gags. It does, however, detract from the main thrust of the story, because Hercules never lets the acclaim go to his head in any significant way. This makes up like Herc more but causes a lull in the narrative; we’re conscious that the filmmakers are vamping until Hades strikes again.
Hades, however, is the film’s single best idea. James Woods voices the character to make him one scene-stealing villain, playing him like a bullying superagent who feels like a perennial victim, because his power derives from doing everybody else’s grunt work. It’s a savvy, sardonic performance that fits seamlessly with the visual appearance of the character.
‘Hercules’ emerges as spritely and literate, even though - or perhaps because - the script cheerfully twists its source material into Gordian knots.