The 90’s, as anyone can tell you, was a snarky, snarky time. Sitcoms like Married… With Children and Friends threw around sarcastic quips from every angle, and even children’s series like Animaniacs couldn’t help but feature dry jokes and retorts. In this way, Hercules undeniably a product of the 90’s: the humor rests largely on wisecracks and one-liners, and its many pop culture references (yes, it has pop culture references) place it firmly during the second Clinton administration. That said, Hercules, while quite dated in places, has aged better than most mid-90’s snark, and still makes for an entertaining film.
Hercules starts with a bold narration (from Charlton Heston, no less) about the heroes of ancient Greece, and how the greatest of the entire pantheon was the mighty Hercules. The voiceover is interrupted by the Muses (five gospel-singin’ women who act as this film's version of the Chorus), who assert that they can tell the story in a more entertaining fashion. The Muses spin a tale of Hercules, born with much fanfare to Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar) as Olympus’ new God. Not everyone is chuffed at the little guy’s appearance, though, as Hades (James Woods) shows up to voice his disapproval of the new boy and his general lot in life (indeed, his first appearance reminds me of Maleficent’s first scene in Sleeping Beauty).
I always like to pretend the middle one's Beyonce.
Hades has a plot to overthrow the gods and reign over Olympus, but he needs to have Hercules out of the picture in order for the plan to work. Hades sends his two lackeys, Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer) to kidnap Hercules, turn him mortal, and put him out of commission. P&P go two for three, but aren’t able to seal the deal on the young boy’s demise, and while Hercules survives the ordeal, he isn’t allowed to rejoin his parents, because only gods can enter Olympus. Hercules is found and adopted by an elderly farming couple (Jonathan and Martha Kent, no doubt), and the only mark of the young god’s Olympian origin is his incredible strength, a leftover from P&P’s botched attempt at infanticide.
Hercules (Josh Keaton) grows up awkward and outcast, derided by others as a “freak” because of his unnaturally strength (he also often breaks whatever is around him). After a particularly disastrous trip to the agora, Hercules sets out to find his real parents, and eventually learns of his divine parentage. Zeus is overjoyed that Herc has discovered his real family, but informs him that he needs to become a hero in order to reclaim his godliness (hint: start at cleanliness). Hercules seeks out Philoctetes, a Mickey Goldmill-esque trainer of ancient epic heroes (“Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus, a lotta ‘yeuses’.”), and in no time at all (though enough for his voice to change to Tate Donovan’s), Herc is ship-shape and ready for action. With help from the flying horse Pegasus and the lovely Megara (Susan Egan), Hercules sets out to become a hero and restore his place on Olympus.
Part of the fun is watching Hercules overcome his initial dorky-isms.
A casual glance at the plot summary reveals that the film is not a blow-by-blow retelling of the Heracles myth. Duh. The myth is grim, dark, violent, and tragic (like its contemporaries), and wouldn’t suit a Disney picture at all; like “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” or “The Little Mermaid” before it, Hercules would see its source material altered to suit the film. Good thing too, I say—as big a fan as I am of Greek mythology, I will acquiesce that the Heracles myth as it is most often told wouldn’t lend itself well to film in general, let alone a musical from the Disney Renaissance. What the film does do is include several sly winks and references to the actual myth, such as Hercules taming the three-headed dog Cerberus or blinding a Cyclops with fire. It’s this attention to detail that lets the audience know that, yes, the filmmakers did their research and, no, they don’t care that, in the myth, Hercules actually kills Megara and their children in a fit of Hera-driven rage.
Hercules is good, but not great. Many of the elements of the movie are reasonably pleasing, but never reach the height of other films from the era (which is a cheap complaint to make, but Herc has The Hunchback of Notre Dame on one side of it and Mulan on the other, and I’ll be damned if it’s not hard to make comparisons). That said, it is a member of the Renaissance, and possesses several memorable qualities, and even if the finished product is uneven, it’s still reasonably distinctive.
Definitely not perfect, but there's a lot to like about Hercules.
First are Hercules’s visuals. Informed, I guess, by Grecian statues and artwork, Hercules has a unique art style that works… most of the time. More often than not, the angular nature of the characters and extra lines on the backgrounds give the film a quirky visual appeal, but the movie occasionally segues into overly-busy, most noticeable with the periphery characters (the group of five from Thebes, the discus-playing teenagers, Pain & Panic, etc.). The movie does make good use of color (especially on Mt. Olympus, where the many-colored gods remind me of a bag of Skittles), but this only adds to the busyness.
Hercules is also arguably Disney’s most “Dreamworks” film to date. I mentioned earlier the use of pop culture references, and if you thought that Aladdin went overboard by including Arsenio Hall, you will be struck dumb by the film’s reference to a then-current American Express commercial, or Hercules’ brand of footwear called “Air Herc.” I could go on. Fortunately, and unlike Dreamworks until very recently, Hercules never loses sight of its heart, resulting in a sense of humor that, while dated, still holds up reasonably well under scrutiny, if only because the snark is never more caustic than it needs to be.
Yep, they went there.
One thing Hercules does have is an impeccable voice cast. Rip Torn’s deep, booming voice gives Zeus a decidedly Big Cheese bravado, though he also supplies a nice, encouraging father feel (which the real Zeus probably couldn’t produce if his thunderbolt depended on it). Susan Egan’s performance as Meg reminds me significantly of Rosalind Russell, with her low key zingers and dry delivery—she turns Meg from a potentially banal Love Interest character into a wonderfully witty match for Hercules’ heroism. Phil is about as amusing as you would expect from the phrase “Danny DeVito plays a talking goat,” using his “two words” bit to great effect.
The real standout of the cast, though, is James Woods. Hades’ constant quips and throwaways (“You look like a fate worse than death”) make him a riot to watch, but Woods is able to throw and underlying menace into his performance, giving the impression that the guy is constantly bubbling under. In fact, the only “weak link” is Tate Donovan, and he’s not even that weak; he manages to play both sides of the security fence, alternately convincing as a mighty hero and a guy who just wants to be accepted. In the face of his supporting cast, though, he gets overwhelmed.
Woods clips along at a mile a minute, and leaves me in stitches every time.
Hercules is criminally underrated by nearly everyone when it comes to its music. Let it be said that Alan Menkin performs well when he’s wearing hats: he won an Academy Award while wearing his Calypso hat during The Little Mermaid, and another one for the Middle East/40’s Big Band hat he wore for Aladdin. Hercules gives him a Baptist Gospel Choir hat to wear, and the results are tasty, lead primarily by the Muses. The songs are energetic, fast, and fun, the best being “Zero to Hero” and “The Gospel Truth.” The character-sung songs are pretty good too, with Phil’s “One Last Hope” being the only dud. “I Can Go the Distance” is one of my favorite Disney Yearning Songs, and Meg’s doo-wop-influenced “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” works as both a character moment for Meg and a catchy little ditty. Menkin’s score is rousing and makes great use of themes, but what did you expect?
The package adds up to a movie that, while not the best that Disney has to offer, is still one of the better comedies in the canon. No one will argue that it’s art, but Hercules has all the potential for a great Movie Night film, where you can revel at the McDonalds “Over 5 Billion Served” reference, and remember what it was like in the 90’s when Disney could do no wrong.
Top 3 Songs:
- “I Can Go the Distance”
- “Zero to Hero”
- “I Won’t Say I’m in Love”
- Herc vs. the Hydra, part II
The Jar Jar:
- Pain & Panic (like the Tweedles, they function as a unit)
How I Watched It
During this retrospective, I’ve looked at several old, out-of-print editions that were later replaced by shinier, newer versions. Hercules is in dire need of one of these upgrades, judging by the DVD I viewed it on (which I picked up brand new from Amazon). The picture is presented in 4:3, non-anamorphic widescreen, which is rather undesirable for folks with widescreen TVs, and the picture quality could use a facelift. I didn’t bother to turn on the surround sound once I realized that the menu looked like it was made in iDVD, but I imagine the movie’s sound, like the picture, is fairly unremarkable.
Hercules has an odd set of extras. The first is a small, cheerleader-y Making Of featurette, which lasts all of six minutes and provides precious little substance; there are some chats with the voice cast, and it’s fun to watch the gospel choir perform in a studio setting, but there’s not much here to work with. Next is a music video of Ricky Martin singing the Spanish (!) version of “I Can Go the Distance,” and last is a set of Movie Recommendations, which is a series of stills advertising The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, or other such sundries. Of the movies I’ve looked at so far, Hercules cries the loudest for a newer version; call it the Zero To Hero edition or whatever you want, but let me have it, and soon!