The time has come to reassess Ron Clements and John Musker’s codirected Hercules (1997), made under the auspices of the Walt Disney Co., then considered one of the studio’s renaissance classics. Alas, in retrospect, Hercules sounded the death knell for this brief cultural revitalization, begun with The Little Mermaid (1989, and also co-directed by these wunderkinds). Many today have forgotten the cyclical and tenuous nature of the animated feature; the arduous and time-consuming – nee awe-inspiring – discipline required to will crude pencil-drawn sketches into delightful creations that seem to breathe with natural life.
Alas, here is a mastery of skill since retired at Disney Inc., once known as the house the mouse built; and one for which Hercules has, again – in hindsight – been readily blamed. Indeed, Hercules marked a necessary departure for the studio, away from its time-honored adherence to the fairy tale. Truth be told, Disney was running out of viable children’s fables to retell. With seemingly no new candidates on the narrative horizon, Clements and Musker turned to Greek mythology for their inspir – and perspir – ation. Many a story boarding session was pleasantly spent with the understanding this pair were hard at work crafting yet another exquisite confection, soon to be ensconced in Disney’s pantheon of time-honored movie classics.
In retrospect, Hercules had everything going for it, including an infectious score given to gospel/jazz influences and co-written by Alan Menken, who along with the late Howard Ashman had been chiefly responsible for the latest spate of truly exceptional music contributed to the studio’s already formidably hummable back catalog of musical treasures. To satisfy, musically at least, Clements and Musker turned to noted gospel singer, Lillias White, given the plum role of Calliope, the Muse of Epics, backed by a powerhouse ensemble featuring Vanéese Y. Thomas, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze and Roz Ryan.
So too did Hercules benefit from many strong vocalizations; Tate Donovan (Hercules), James Woods (Hades), Danny DeVito (Philoctetes – Phil’ for short), Rip Torn (Zeus) and Charlton Heston (narrator) standing behind the microphone. Also noteworthy: Susan Egan as Meg, the conflicted amour of our well-muscled Grecian idol. Finally, the score features an iconic ballad, ‘Go the Distance’ sung with considerable passion by Michael Bolton; a chart-topper adding to the singer’s repertoire but, alas, only heard under the end titles (a customary relegation ever since Celine Dion and Peobo Bryson serenaded one another at the end of Disney’s Beauty & The Beast 1991).
The artists working on Hercules were stimulated in their endeavors by the simplicity in ancient Grecian artwork; also by Vaudevillian sight gags, many timely (some still quaintly regarded as silly good fun upon repeat viewing today. Alas, others have already become dated and remotely vague. Does anyone still appreciate the references to Air-Herc, Hercul-aid or The Hercules Store – the latter, a riff on the company’s own mall-themed ‘Disney Stores’? Perhaps a more prudent question remains: will anyone remember these twenty years from now?). At the time of its release, I must confess to considering Hercules something of a rush job; having read in the trades that it was a last minute substitute, pitched by animator Joe Haidar so Clements and Musker could get to the movie they really wanted to make – Treasure Planet; a project thrice killed in its preliminary stages by Disney exec, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Although Katzenberg would openly admit he understood the animation business only superficially, he definitely had his pulse of the unsalable nature of this latter project; a huge financial failure for Disney when it finally debuted in 2002.
And actually, coming as it did on the heels of such luminous creations as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994), Hercules continues to pale in the public’s estimation as a bona fide Disney classic. Worse, the film had been preceded by one of Disney’s most ambitious box office disappointments: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Despite Hunchback’s untouchable style (finer animation had not been seen at the studio since Walt’s Sleeping Beauty 1959) the picture failed to catch the popular zeitgeist; too highbrow for the kiddies, too much comedy – too Disney-fied – to satisfy purists of the Victor Hugo literary classic. Finally, in 1995 another movie put forth in conjunction with creative collaborations at Pixar Studios, had shown the way to Disney’s present course: the computer-generated coming of age comedy, Toy Story. With so much overflowing of the creative juices, Hercules came and went from the public consciousness without making much of a pit stop at the box office.
Clements and Musker would have rather pursued Treasure Planet then; their hasty pitches to Katzenberg for animated features inspired by Don Quixote, Homer’s The Odyssey and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days neither satisfying Katzenberg’s creative genius or his executive logic. Katzenberg was, however, mildly impressed by Haidar’s concept for Hercules; a chance for Disney to attempt the ‘superhero’ movie; a sub-genre it had shied away from in its past, with noted live-action exceptions: Condorman (1981) and The Rocketeer (1991) – neither a hit nor considered a classic today with the passage of time. Had Katzenberg looked more closely, he might have also reasoned the project bore more than a passing resemblance to the studio’s The Sword and the Stone (1963) and The Black Cauldron (1985); both unmitigated disasters – if not artistically (for no Disney animated feature has arguably ever been that), then nevertheless, critically and financially.
Undaunted, Katzenberg green lit Hercules into production; Clements and Musker embracing the story and entrusting the creative development of its main character to Andreas Deja, who had become something of a minor celebrity among this new breed of Disney animators. Alas, in re-designing Hercules, son of Zeus, immortal muscle man, devoted to humanity at large and beloved of the Gods on high at Mount Olympus, Deja was to interject a sort of goony ‘aw shucks’ bo-hunk ‘charm’ – a quality Deja later described as “a naïve kid trapped in a big body”. Meant to humanize the character, more digestible for the prepubescent male audience, in retrospect Deja’s tampering gives Hercules a mawkish and not terrible prepossessing silliness that belies his heroic deeds. Further contradicting Greek mythology, our Herc’ is neither secure in himself nor in his ability to procure a viable romance with the beloved of his choosing – Meg; a captive of Hades ever since she sold her soul to belong to one man who, ironically, abandoned her after this pact with the god of the underworld had already been signed (shades of Ariel’s dastardly concordat with Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid).
To secure her release from Hades’ clutches, and thus regain her freedom, Meg agrees to seduce Hercules and discover his weakness, passing along this secret information to Hades who will then exploit it to take over Mount Olympus and rule the earth with an iron fist (shades of Jafar’s reckless desires for world conquest, more astutely expressed in Aladdin). There are already too many similarities between Hercules and the recent past in Disney’s rich, though narrowly varied animated history; the story eventually ironed out by Clements, Musker, Don McEnery, Bob Shaw and Irene Mecchi (to say nothing of the additional thirteen writers who contributed to its development) feeding the time-honored cliché about too many cooks spoiling the broth.
Viewed today, Hercules’ plot is perhaps the most threadbare. It moves at a breakneck pace; Clements and Musker determined to cram in a cacophony of cants and bromides, bookended by soliloquies supplied by the Muses; sound bytes of glib dialogue sandwiched in between eight catchy songs, each lavishly appointed, though alas, rather disconnected from the plot itself. ‘Zero to Hero’ is a prime example of Hercules’ elephantiatis run amuck: a frenetic summarization of our champion’s rise to fame and fortune after his manager/mentor, Phil orchestrates a series of bouts between our brawny stud and Hades, mustering all the supernatural terrors his wrath and underworld menagerie can behold. One by one, each is dispatched posthaste by this meaty muscle man; the Muses belting out their chorus of approval as we witness Herc’s legacy being ushered into the hallowed arts of Greek literature and, of course, music.
As the song progresses, Clements and Musker take their references well into the 20th century: Herc’ adored by screaming teenage girls (Frank Sinatra, anyone?), advertised in Air-Herc’ mosaic tiled billboards (Nikes’ Air Jordan), promoting workout videos (a la Jane Fonda meets Jack LaLanne), having his own credit card – Grecian Express (don’t leave the Acropolis without it!) and merchandised as a kiddie action figure (Disney’s own shameless exploitation). There’s even a poke at the studio’s previous colossus; Herc’ posing for a portrait in a lion’s skin (none other than Scar’s carcass from The Lion King).
Zero to Hero was used as the coming attractions trailer for both the theatrical, and, initial home video release of Hercules. In viewing the number today, particularly as a standalone piece, one can get a sense of the story without actually investing in the 93 minutes it takes to absorb the entire movie. Expertly placed at approximately the middle of the movie, all of the references in this pivotal number are uber-clever to be sure. Some are even witty beyond expectation. Regrettably, none are allotted the necessary time to sink in with the audience. Apparently taking a tip from Robin Williams’ rapid fire delivery as Aladdin’s justly celebrated genie, Clements and Musker have chosen to zip past all this adroit humor with a dizzying array of razz-a-matazz.
The pace is too frenetic, too breakneck, too much of a good thing spilling over all at once; the audience never afforded the necessary breather to digest everything. Narrative pauses are a luxury too many modern movies seem to have forgotten to include in our viewing experience; presumably because to do so might allow an audience to become bored. But the opposite approach to storytelling – simply throwing an endless array of narrative paintballs at the screen and hoping more than half consecutively stick, ironically has the opposite effect; anesthetizing the intellect, while wearying the eyes and the mind.
Hercules begins with a grand prologue from Charlton Heston, whose monumental command of the English language is interrupted by Lillias White’s polite suggestion he is boring us to tears with a ‘Greek tragedy’. At once, we are given a hint as to where the overall tenor of the piece is now headed; not toward a timeless retelling of this time-honored myth, but a wickedly disguised burlesque and bastardization of Grecian mythology itself, miraculously reconstituted as a Disney/Broadway hybrid; all bounce and showmanship, but without much thought for adhering to its source material. That’s okay – to a point. For no Disney retelling of the classic fairytales has ever strictly stuck to its origins. However, lost in the process this time around is dignity for the character of Hercules, unlike say, Quasimodo in Hunchback, who retains his Victor Hugo-inspired humanity and tortured sense of self-preservation.
We witness Zeus (voiced by Rip Torn) and his wife, Hera (Samantha Eggar) exile the Titans to an everlasting imprisonment beneath the waves. The gods – and there are too many to list herein – are joyful; all except Zeus’ jealous brother, Hades. Alas, who wouldn’t be envious of this muscled-up sun god; the blessed recipient of the family’s most cultivated gene pool, indiscriminately wielding thunderbolts to exercise his might; also to preserve the everlasting peace on earth? By comparison, Hades is a wan imitation of Zeus’ greatness; with cadaver-like gray skin and physically repugnant features; a pointy nose, bulging eyes and blue flames for hair.
Zeus and Hera are celebrating the birth of their only child; Hercules – the heir apparent to Olympus’ throne. Turning to the Fates, Hades learns of an eighteen year interplanetary alignment. This will allow him to locate and free the Titans banished from Olympus by his brother. Alas, in eighteen years Hercules will have become a god himself, capable of deposing Hades. So Hades concocts a plan to do away with Hercules; getting his bumbling minions, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer) to force feed the babe a poisoned formula. It turns him into a mortal. Mercifully, the diabolical potion does not kill Herc’s’ superhuman strength. Kidnapping the child, Pain and Panic bungle their assignment, allowing mortal farmers, Amphitryon (Hal Holbrook) and Alcmene (Barbara Barrie) to adopt and rear the child as their own.
As a gawky, awkward teenager, Hercules is ostracized by his peers for being different; a common theme in Disney movies, ultimately leading our protagonist on a soul-searching exploration, culminating with the inevitable understanding there is absolutely nothing wrong with being yourself. Bolstered by his own curiosity over a necklace he has worn since birth, Herc’ visits the temple of Zeus and is frankly, astonished when its gargantuan stone likeness comes to life, revealing his true parentage and suggesting Herc’ can still regain his God-like status by proving himself a ‘true hero’. Unfortunately, the definition of ‘true heroism’ is left for Herc’ to discover and interpret on his own.
Zeus does offer a single piece of prophetic advice: for Hercules to take his winged horse, Pegasus and seek out the satyr, Philoctetes— ‘Phil’ for short—who has trained many a superman in his time. Their ‘cute meet’ is hardly advantageous or even cute; Phil embittered and having sworn off muscle men after several glaring disappointments with previous prospective candidates. Hercules promises to be different, his emphatic declaration inspiring Phil to take him under his wing. On the road to destiny, Herc’ saves Megara (Meg for short) from the centaur, Nessus. Meg is hardly the proverbial damsel in distress. Nor is she particularly impressed with Herc’s physical prowess. After Herc’ and Phil’ leave, Meg is revealed as one of Hades’ minions, having traded her soul to spare an unfaithful lover.
Arriving at the city of Thebes, Hercules is once again considered a social outcast. Hades now sends Meg to ensnare Herc’; Pain and Panic impersonating two small boys trapped in a gorge. Believing this may be his ticket to becoming a true hero, Herc’ rushes off to save the children and is confronted by the multi-headed Hydra, summoned by Hades to destroy him. Herc’ cannot kill the Hydra by cutting off its heads. So he causes a landslide that effectively does the job. Hailed as a conqueror by the people, we fast track through Herc’s meteoric rise and romp through fortune and glory. Sadly, his national celebrity does not equate to true heroism; Zeus’ statue stirred to life yet again, only to explain Herc’ has not yet attained enlightenment worthy of the gods. Frustrated and feeling more alone than ever, Hercules returns to his palatial home. There, he is accosted by a small fan club of adoring females who tear at his clothes and smother him in kisses.
Phil manages to trick the groupies into a hasty exit; all but Meg, who lures Hercules away from his societal duties with her promises of love; an emotion she repeatedly denies herself but is undeniably beginning to believe in. Herc’ confides in Meg: he would never do anything to disappoint her. Alas, Hades reminds the girl of her bondage and orders Meg to seduce Hercules before the hour of his eighteenth year. The planetary alignment is fast approaching and Hades has little time to free the Titans from their underwater prison. When Meg refuses to comply, Hades takes matters into his own hands. Pain and Panic impersonate a female pony, luring Pegasus away from his master. At the same moment, Phil and Hercules have a falling out, the former bitterly disappointed his protégée has failed to live up to expectations.
Hades reveals Meg to Hercules, bound and gagged, explaining the only way he can save her is by giving up his strength for twenty-four hours; enough time for Hades to conquer the world and destroy Olympus. Meg pleads with Hercules not to accept this deal. But Herc’ is in love and shakes Hades’ hand on this promise. His superhuman strength usurped by the powerful handshake, Hades wasting no time in sending the Cyclops to crush Thebes and annihilate Hercules. In the meantime, Hades storms Olympus with the remainder of the Titans, capturing the gods with ease. All seems lost until Hades’ spell is prematurely broken by a gracious whim of fate; a stone pylon crushing Meg. As the pact with Hades was predicated on the promise no harm would come to Meg, Hercules’ superhuman strength is immediately restored. While Meg lay dying, Phil encourages Hercules to save Olympus by freeing the gods.
Hades plans are thwarted. But Meg has paid the supreme sacrifice; dead before Hercules’ return. Enraged, Herc’ hunts down Hades in his underworld lair, finding Meg’s soul circling the ominously emerald whirlpool of the river Styx. Hercules makes another bargain with Hades; to save Meg from eternal death by taking her place. Believing he cannot lose this time, Hades agrees and Hercules dives in after Meg’s soul, almost losing his own as he begins to wither under Styx life-consuming spell. The Fates prepare to cut the cord of his life; denied their pleasure when Zeus immortalizes his offspring. Immune to death, Hercules rises from Styx with Meg’s soul in his arms, returning it to her lifeless body.
Miraculously restored, Meg embraces her champion; the pair suddenly whisked on a golden cloud high to Olympus’ sacred city. Zeus proclaims Hercules a true god. But Herc’ has had time to reconsider what really matters. Despite this honor, he has decided he would rather spend whatever life remains, back on earth, with Meg as his betrothed. Thebes rejoices in their returning warrior and Zeus proudly creates an outline of his cherished son from the twinkling stars in heaven to commemorate his intrepidness.
Interestingly, in the ‘Zero to Hero’ number a similar celestial likeness of Marilyn Monroe is glimpsed; the updraft from Herc’s speeding chariot causing her billowy skirt of stars to rise above her ankles; an obvious homage to the famed subway scene from Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). Exactly how Monroe already happens to be a fixture in ancient Greece, undeniably worthy of such sacred worship, is perhaps best left to the imagination and movie providence. Budgeted at $85,000,000, Disney’s Hercules grossed a disappointing $99,046,791 in the U.S. Although its’ worldwide tally of $252,712,101 definitely brought the picture into the black, it was not the megahit the studio had hoped.
Scholastically speaking, the movie is on even shakier ground. Fair enough, no one – not even critical historians – should expect a Disney feature to embrace diehard academia. But Hercules does not even get the superficial aspects of Greek mythology right. For starters, Hera – the goddess depicted as Zeus’ wife on Olympus was not Hercules’ mother, but a vengeful woman who sought to have the infant – a bastard child sired by Zeus and the mortal, Alcmene (conceived after Zeus had disguised himself as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon) eaten alive by Pain and Panic; the pair reincarnated as snakes. Alas, infidelity and infanticide are not concepts readily associated with the Disney family brand and thus, forgivable, necessary changes have to be made.
But the motivations behind the bungling of other particulars are less clear. For example, the Fates do not ‘share an eye’ as depicted in the movie and Pegasus was created from Medusa’s blood, not the white fluffy clouds of Olympus. The Titans in this movie blame Zeus for their incarceration in Tartarus (actually the most derelict and remote part of the underworld – not the sea). Yet, it was Zeus’ grandfather, Uranus, who banished them; Zeus actually freeing the Titans from their purgatory and given the gift of lightning as their thanks. Zeus did not bestow the underworld to Hades; rather it was won in a draw also featuring Poseidon, the god of the sea.
Finally, Megara was Hercules’ first wife, whom Hercules murdered – along with their children in a fit of madness she helped to induce. As retribution for these sins, Hercules committed the rest of his life to heroic deeds, many depicted in this movie. Hercules saved his second wife, Deianara from Styx’s guardian, Nessos. As revenge, Nessos gave Deianara a poisonous shirt, reported to have the strange and captivating elixir of love. Alas, once worn, the shirt inflicts a crippling pain, searing into Hercules’ flesh. To end his suffrage, Hercules builds his own funeral pyre, begging friends to set both him and it ablaze. No one except Philoctetes (a man, not a satyr) can bring themselves to perform this mercy killing. As Hercules burns, Zeus deifies his only offspring as a god of Olympus.
For obvious reasons, the scriptwriters chose to obliterate these more grotesque episodes; also to satisfy the movie’s clear-cut ‘good versus evil’ scenario. Hercules adheres to the time-honored principles of a classic Disney animated feature; occasionally, spectacularly well. But the pacing of the piece is decidedly off – or rather, too briskly executed to make one appreciate the immeasurable craftsmanship; particularly at a first glance. The action moves so swiftly, we forget to pay attention; the in-jokes washing over like a tsunami and bringing as much devastation to our collective imaginations in its aftermath. All of the elements are present for another memorable Disney feature. And yet, Hercules is, arguably, the least enduring of the studio’s renaissance pictures.
In hindsight, the simplified stylistic design of both characters and backgrounds seems more fitting for a Saturday morning serialized cartoon than a major feature. No doubt, the executive brain trust at Disney Inc. already had its eye on this prize, launching a successful direct-to-video sequel and TV series based on this movie. Yet, Disney animated features used to have a majesty – nee, a defining look all their own – impossible to reproduce on the scaled down budget allocated a series. Alas, looking back on the renaissance pictures, from The Little Mermaid onward, one can see their strength is not exclusive to each’s visual artistry; rather, an ingenious - if homogenized – appeal: strong story elements married to vibrant music and palpably pleasant, though mostly undistinguished visuals. These infrequently hint at the sparks of greatness to be found elsewhere in the studio’s illustrious past. Cumulatively, however, the films after Walt are an artistically uneven slate, increasingly relying on a more efficient marketability.
Consider the human form in these subsequent releases; far more rounded and less ‘life-like’. Reduced to basic, if no less fluid lines, these human figures are light years removed from the complex line drawings created by Disney’s ‘nine old men’ during Walt’s golden age. Like everything else in Hollywood, animation has undergone a streamlining process; the results decided watered down over time. The time taken to complete such a costly venture has been expedited from its most lengthy aegis (Sleeping Beauty took 6 years to complete) to Hercules’ expedited conception (barely six months in production).
Hercules will be released in North America on Blu-ray on August 12th of this year. However, it has been readily available in the UK for at least several years. Baring different cover art and Disney’s inclusion of a DVD and Digital Copy for the North American reissue, there will likely be no upgrade to this 1080p transfer; also no added content, except perhaps Michael Bolton’s music video – absent from this release and curiously replaced with Ricky Martin’s Spanish rendering of the song, ‘Go the Distance’. Why Disney Inc. has been so delinquent in releasing the remainder of their animated features in North America (Aladdin, Make Mine Music, Three Caballeros, and 101 Dalmatians have yet to arrive on Blu-ray state’s side) is an oddity no one except the powers at Disney Inc. could venture a guess at with any degree of certainty (to say nothing of their almost universal disinterest in bringing the studio’s live-action catalog to hi-def. Where oh where is Pollyanna, the original Parent Trap, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, Old Yeller, Song of the South, Treasure Island, The Absent Minded Professor, That Darn Cat, Three Lives of Thomasina, The Shaggy Dog, The Happiest Millionaire, to name but a handful.
But back to Hercules: this Blu-ray does a very fine job of recapturing the original film-based organic look of the animated feature. The image is clean and bright, with eye-popping colors that are beautifully rendered. Clarity is exceptional. Fine details astound. Contrast is bang on perfect. Bottom line: no complaints; neither with the 5.1 audio – utterly robust and readily prone to giving your speakers a full workout. The gospel/jazz numbers deliver a real sonic kick. Wow and thank you! Extras are limited to a vintage ‘making of’ rendered in the poorest possible quality; grainy and noise-infested video. Again, we get Ricky Martin warbling a Latino friendly rendition of Bolton’s Go the Distance; the video quality of this music video as poor – if not worse than the featurette. Bottom line: you can wait for Disney to get off its hump and reissue Hercules in North America. But why bother, when this disc is region free and readily available to anyone who shops at Amazon.com. Recommended for the tiny tots to whom integrity in animation isn’t nearly as important.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)