You can run but you can’t Hydra!
I didn’t make that up…apparently that was a bona fide tagline for the movie. Hercules was Disney’s 1997 animated offering. It marked their first animated movie that was based on mythology rather than an original story, a children’s book, or a fairy tale. Naturally, the story is far removed from the one you’ll find in dusty volumes of Greek lore; it has the requisite musical numbers, independent female, and goofy sidekicks that mark most Disney flicks.
The Disney animation studio lost much of its luster when Walt Disney passed away in 1966. The Jungle Book was the last feature-length animated movie that he was involved in producing. There was a steady decline in the quality and quantity of Disney’s animated movies until direction of the company fell into the capable hands of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Their first animated success was 1989’s The Little Mermaid, and it was followed by the equally impressive Beauty And The Beast (the first animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award), Aladdin, and The Lion King. But, once again the studio hit a slump with the dismal returns for Pocahontas and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Hercules is something of a mixed bag; it’s not as bad as Pocahontas, but nowhere near as lofty or impressive as Beauty And The Beast.
Hercules follows the trend, started with Aladdin, of using recognizable stars for voice talent. Foremost among the cast is James Woods (Casino, Contact, John Carpenter’s Vampires) as the story’s antagonist, Hades. Woods’ acerbic personality and oily voice lends itself well to a characterization of the Lord Of The Underworld. Danny DeVito (Batman Returns, L.A. Confidential, The Rainmaker) supplies the voice of Philoctetes, the satyr trainer to heroes. DeVito is one of the hardest working (and coolest) men working in showbiz, not just as an actor but also as a producer (Pulp Fiction, Man On The Moon) and director (Get Shorty, the underrated family movie Matilda). Also appearing are Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction), Bobcat Goldthwait (Shakes The Clown), Matt Frewer (Max Headroom), Rip Torn (Men In Black), Hal Holbrook (Wall Street), and Paul Shaffer (David Letterman’s sidekick and band leader).
Hercules begins with the birth of the titular hero to the greatest god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus (Torn). The child poses a threat to Hades, the Lord Of The Underworld, so he dispatches his minions, Pain and Panic (Goldthwait and Frewer), to turn the child into a mortal and kill him. However, the hapless demons are interrupted while feeding Hercules the potion that will make him human. Hercules becomes a mortal, but retains his godlike strength. He is raised by human parents, ignorant of his origins.
When he is a teenager, Hercules’ parents tell him the truth. He retreats to a temple of Zeus, where his true father informs him that to return to Mount Olympus, he must become a true hero. For his training, he is sent to find Philoctetes (DeVito), the trainer of great heroes such as Achilles and Jason. And so “Phil” trains Hercules into the muscle-bound hero everyone knows and loves.
Once his training is complete, Hercules sets off to prove his heroic potential. Along the way, he stops to save a damsel in distress, Megara. However, Megara proves to be an agent of Hades. When Hades finds out that Hercules is still alive and is attempting to regain entrance to Mount Olympus, he sets his sights on destroying the hero. The centerpiece of this section of the movie is an impressive duel between Hercules and the hydra, a multi-headed beast that regenerates multiple heads in place of any one that is cut off. Disney’s animators were assisted by computer animation for the sequence. It’s extraordinary, though not quite as seamlessly integrated as the computer-aided imagery of The Iron Giant or Tarzan.
Hercules is enjoyable, lighthearted fun, but not as emotionally involving as Beauty And The Beast or Tarzan. The musical numbers seem forced and out of place. The producers chose to use a gospel/R&B theme for the music, which while more commercially viable than, say, a Greek chorus, is not as authentic. Greek choruses can be funny, as Woody Allen proved in Mighty Aphrodite, but Woody’s chorus mostly sang show tunes and big band numbers so it’s a moot point. Music aside, Hercules takes every opportunity to slip in a comic aside. Some of them are so obvious that even a five year old will catch them (such as the “Air Herc” sandals), while a few took me a second to puzzle out (“Call I X I I!”).
Hercules was one of the first wave of animated classics released to DVD by Disney. As such, it shares the drawbacks of those other releases: it’s light on extras, it’s non-anamorphic, and it’s overpriced. The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The movie perhaps has the widest, most garish, palette in a Disney movie since Alice In Wonderland. The bright scenes are not oversaturated, and exhibit no blooming or bleeding. The darker scenes in the Underworld have a dead-on black level without losing clarity. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The mix is active, fully utilizing all channels. The extras are limited to a making-of featurette that clocks in at nine minutes, and a music video for “Go The Distance.” It might qualify as an Easter egg, because it’s not listed on the packaging. The song in question was recorded for the closing credits by (shiver) Michael Bolton, but in the video it is performed (in Spanish) by pop heartthrob sensation Ricky Martin.
Lest I forget, there’s also that other extra that all the consumers are clamoring for: the “full-color character artwork on disc.” Ooh, they screenprinted the disc! That makes Disney’s inflated prices worthwhile!
Disney has a history of overcharging for their products, so it’s no surprise that their DVDs are overpriced. Hercules retails for $34.99US, though it can be found for less online and in discount stores. Fortunately, the prices have been lowered on their subsequent releases — The Aristocats recently debuted at a suggested price of $29.99US.
While not as satisfying as Tarzan, Hercules is a worthy addition to the collection of those entertaining young children or those who just like animated movies (like me). Just make sure you get it at a discount.
One little trivia tidbit. Gerald Scarfe was brought on board as the production designer. Scarfe directed the animated portions of Pink Floyd’s rock opera masterpiece, The Wall. Scarfe’s input gave Hercules its distinctive look that combines elements of classic Grecian art with the traditional look and feel of Disney animation.