If you read the pieces on this series regularly, then you will have already noticed there’s a trend that started with Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Disney’s honeymoon period was over, and it was starting to look like trouble. Its movies were relative successes, either performing decently at the box-office or gaining critical supporters, but they weren’t unquestionable successes anymore. With every passing year, it looked more and more like the studio had peaked with The Lion King, and the release of Hercules in 1997 would proof to be yet another reason to fuel that believe. Hercules received warm reviews, but became the first Disney movie since The Rescuers Down Under that failed to cross the 100 million mark at the box office. That doesn’t mean it was a failure, since it did pretty well internationally and I imagine it broke even eventually, but it was yet another signal that Disney’s glow was fading. The lessons of the past few years was that they didn’t have audiences in the palm of their hands anymore. After the self-seriousness of Pocahontas and Hunchback, the lighter and more colorful Hercules seems, in many ways, like a move to regain that audience.
The directors behind Hercules were Ron Clements and John Musker, who had an excellent track record at the studio having directed the game-changing Little Mermaid and the gigantically successful Aladdin. It is well-known that Clements and Musker were trying really hard to get their dream-project (an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island set in space) off the ground, but the studio kept resisting. Hercules was supposedly a job they took on in order to get that project going. If that makes Hercules sound like an dispassionate job-for-hire film, well, there is an argument to be made there. The fact that it isn’t as good as the duo’s previous movies is not up for debate, as a matter of fact, a good way to describe Hercules would be as an attempt to recreate Aladdin.
Aladdin was at one point the studio’s biggest hit ever, and it had remained very popular with the public, so I am not surprise Disney tried to make a similar movie in order to achieve a similar success. Like Aladdin, Hercules features a young male hero, a bold color palette, stylized art direction and character design, and most distinctly from Disney’s last few movies, an overly comedic and cartoonish sensibility. There are a few dramatic elements in Hercules, but they seem to have been paid very little attention (if any at all), the focus of the animators seems to have shifted towards making the comedy work and connecting with the audience through gags, not drama. That is neither a good or bad approach to have. It can be disastrous when it is taken just as a way to get the audience on your side (like in Shrek, or the worst Dreamworks movies), but it can also be great when it comes from a place of genuine strive to be as funny as possible (like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). Hercules, even if not entirely successful, has its heart in the right place.
Perhaps the most overtly comedic element of Hercules is its villain. Actor James Woods has long been praised for his performance as Hades, and I can see why. If I had to describe the character, I’d say he is a cross between Scar and the Genie from Aladdin. He is definitely as fabulous as Scar, and while he is not as dynamic in form and animation as the Genie (although there is some pretty cool animation in his flaming hair and his rage outbursts), both characters do share an atemporal style of comedy. The Genie has all his modern references and impressions, while Hades is clearly meant to suggest a fast-talking Hollywood executive. His lines, usually filled with yiddish vocabulary, are the best in the films. “We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy. What do you say?” He is most probably best in show.
If you watched the clip, then you probably noticed Hades’s minions, Pain and Panic, sporting Hercules Air-Jordan-like footwear and zippin’ on some Gatorade-like energy drink respectively. Yes, Hercules is as filled (if not more) with contemporary gags and elements than Aladdin. What’s interesting, though, is that these elements are not relegated to one mystical character (the Genie in that case), but are embraced fully as parts of the version of ancient Greece inhabited by this characters. Disney planned on having the premiere of the film on the Pnyx Hill in Athens, but the Greek government refused. You can kind of see why. This movie is nothing at all like the solemn state “serious” people like to think about when they think about ancient Greece.
This movie actually barely resembles the actual myth of Hercules (or Heracles, as is the spelling of his actual Greek name). The most famous part of the said myth (at least according to me), is the twelve labors the hero must complete to be atoned from his crimes. Now, Hercules’s journey in the movie (his goal is to be a true hero so he can go back to his father Zeus on Mount Olympus) can easily work with the twelve labors structure, but there is no such thing in the movie. This is not an adaptation of Heracles’s story as it is an amalgam coming out of the idea of Greek mythology. This is something that might have bothered my younger, nerdier, self, but something that becomes understandable once you realize where the filmmakers were coming from. The idea was to make a modern comedy set in ancient Greece.
That’s how you get Hades, and all those references to 90s pop culture. Although, I have to say, the references hold up pretty well. Usually, modern references are so of-the-moment that they lose their meaning very quickly after the movie’s release (this happens at some points in Aladdin). Hercules, is clever enough to know to pick its targets and make them as essential and relatable as possible. The joke about Air Jordans won’t age well, but most jokes are about more lasting things like indoor plumbing or the ubiquity of publicity and celebrity culture. Following the premise, we also get the structure of a sports movie, not to different from Rocky, with Hercules’s trainer, Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), playing the part of Burgess Metedith’s character in that movie. Just like Hades is based on a Hollywood exec, Phil is an accented New Yorker. To cap this all of, the story is told, through song, by a group of Muses, who are very much soul singers. Classical history and Motown are not two things I would immediately think of pairing, but at this point, it doesn’t matter; the movie is what it is.
Now, anyone who has watched Shark Tale will know that taking a modern-life setting and applying it to another world can be disastrous. It seems almost impossible that a movie could have all these crazy ideas and still feel like a whole, but for some reason, Hercules makes it work. Well, I shouldn’t say “for some reason” as if I didn’t have a thesis for how the movie manages to balance its tone. My explanation is actually right there: the movie balances its tone. It is certainly more interested in being funny than it is in the dramatic elements, but those elements are still there, and they have been developed up to a point where they can serve the story. That is also important. These dramatic elements make up a solid enough basis for the movie to build upon, but they are not exactly worthy of praise.
Like most of Disney’s male heroes at this time, Hercules is incredibly dull. He lacks personality and his romantic story with Meg doesn’t quite work either. Meg is actually an interesting character. She doesn’t quite work as a whole for me, but I see what the animators were trying to do. Her design is exaggerated and angular and she has a femme fatale quality to her voice and personality. The thing that doesn’t work is that the story needs her to be the funniest (or most charming) character, and she’s actually not that funny.
The other weak spot in the film is, actually, the music. Alan Menken returns, but this time he works with lyricist David Zippel. It’s not that the musical is bad, but that it is very uneven. The Muses establish a retro-soul vibe at the very beginning of the movie, and all of those numbers are a lot of fun, but the movie does not restrict itself to that musical style. “Go the Distance” is an I Want song that is very much a Broadway number, and a very dull at that (on a side note, its intro music is distractingly similar to that of “The Bells of Notre Dame”). Meanwhile, Phil’s song, “One Last Hope” is, well, it is actually kind of bad. But, hey, there are good numbers. Like Meg’s “I Won’t Say I’m in Love”, which I think has become kind of a fan favorite, and with good reason.
Even with its flaws, the foundations are solid enough to provide Hercules with solid ground onto which to build the comedy. And you know the comedy is the main goal here. As a movie that wants to be funny, it succeeds. As an experiment in the Disney Canon and a signal of the kind of animated movies that were to come in the following decade, it’s also a very interesting piece. It would not be the last time Disney would try to go for pure comedy, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks, and while it isn’t a great movie it is pretty solid. I think Hercules has gained somewhat of a reputation as the weak link in the Disney Renaissance. Perhaps because it didn’t make as much money as the other movies, or because it is mostly funny and not so serious, but it does deserve a second look.
Next Week: Disney goes to China with Mulan.