Hercules

Hercules (1997)

Directed by Jon Musker and Ron Clements

Synopsis

Seeking revenge against his brother Zeus for being forced to live in the Underworld, the Greek god Hades learns from the Fates that in 18 years there will be a planetary alignment which will allow him to overthrow Zeus and take over Olympus.  However, the Fates warn him that if Zeus’s son Hercules, currently an infant, were to fight in the battle, that his plan would fail. 

To prevent this, Hades sends two of his minions to kidnap the baby, along with a potion that will turn him mortal.  The kidnapping goes as planned, but the minions are defeated with the help of a human farmer before Hercules can drink all of the potion.  As a result, he is mortal, but retains his god-like strength.  Growing into an awkward teenager with a habit of accidentally destroying things, Hercules leaves home to find himself.  At the temple of Zeus, he learns who his real father is, and that he can only return to Olympus if he proves himself to be a true hero.

To do so, he enlists the help of the satyr Philoctetes, a former trainer of heroes who quit when they all failed.  Despite a rough start, he soon becomes one of the most famous heroes in all of Greece, complete with endorsement deals and his own merchandise line.  He also falls in love with Meg, a girl who’s secretly working for Hades.  With the planetary alignment drawing near, Hades tries everything to kill Hercules, until he hits on the idea of using Meg.  He holds Meg hostage, and agrees to exchange her safety for Hercules’s super-strength. 

With his foe depowered, Hades begins his conquest of Olympus, sending the Cyclops to finish off Hercules.  He still manages to defeat the creature without his powers, but Meg is injured in the battle.  Since Hades had promised she wouldn’t be hurt, that breaks the deal, and Hercules gets his strength back.  He reaches Olympus just in time to stop Hades, but Meg dies from her wounds.  Unwilling to let her go, Hercules goes to the Underworld, and attempts to sacrifice himself to save her soul.  This selfless act finally proves him to be a true hero, and he regains his godhood.  However, he decides not to join his father in Olympus, but instead stays on Earth with Meg.

Production Notes

After the successes of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, directors Jon Musker and Ron Clements began to develop their dream project: a science fiction adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.   While they were very enthusiastic about the idea, Jeffrey Katzenberg was much less enamored.  He was willing to make them a deal, however.  If they made another commercially successful film first, he’d green-light Treasure Planet for them. 

After rejecting adaptations of Around the World in 80 Days and Don Quixote, the duo came across an old pitch from 1992 for a Hercules movie.  They thought they could do it as a superhero movie, and it was approved by Katzenberg before he left the studio.  Since the actual Greek myth of Hercules was definitely too dark for a Disney film (Hercules is the result of Zeus cheating on his wife, Hercules’s famous labours were to atone for killing his own wife, etc), they decided to throw out the traditional story and do something different.  Observing the Hercules was sort of the Michael Jordan of ancient Greece, they ended up settling on a sort of Rocky-esque sports movie as a template, complete with the old, crotchety coach and the training montages.

Phil the satyr was created specifically with Danny DeVito in mind, though it took a while to convince him to take the role.  The movie’s villain, Hades, was a lot harder to nail down.  John Lithgow was actually cast for the part, and recorded dialogue, but they were having trouble getting his performance to work with the rest of the tone of the movie.  They started looking into replacements, and went with James Woods when he did a take that was completely different from most of the other auditions, playing the part like an evil used car salesman.

The animation team assembled for the film was the largest that Disney had ever had.  Almost 700 people ended up working on it.  The character designs were based on the work of Gerald Scarfe, a cartoonist and caricaturist who drew for the New Yorker magazine, with Scarfe himself brought on as a production designer.  The battle sequence with the thirty-headed hydra was the most extensive use of CG yet in a non-Pixar Disney film, and it took almost a year and a half to complete the four-minute fight.

The movie received an all-out marketing blitz from the studio, including a massive parade in New York City that shut down Times Square and drew complaints from local businesses and politicians.  Despite that, however, Hercules performed worse at the box office than Pocahontas had.  It ended up being the lowest-grossing Disney movie since The Rescuers Down Under, and Disney’s stock dipped by almost 10% after its release.  Fortunately for Musker and Clements, Katzenberg was no longer with the company by that time, and new chairman Joe Roth (as well as executives Roy E. Disney and Michael Eisner) were more amenable to their plans for Treasure Planet.  But that’s a movie for another time.

Review

This movie really feels like an overcorrection from the Katzenberg era.  Sure, it was approved by him, but most of the actual work on the film was done after he’d resigned from the studio.  Katzenberg had been the driving force behind the campaign to get Disney another Best Picture nomination, a campaign which resulted in the more serious, “mature” films of Pocahontas and Hunchback.  With Hercules, the animation department seemed to want to get back to the family films that they were known for.  I just think that they took things a little too far.

The movie’s most obvious inspiration is definitely Aladdin.  The two films not only share directors, but have the same zany, pop-culture-filled energy.  Unfortunately, while Aladdin had an almost perfect balance of elements, here things are definitely off.

I think that the movie’s problems begin with the animation style.  The decision to base the characters’ designs off of a famous caricaturist is fine in theory, but it gives most of the characters this sketchy quality that I found off-putting.  I don’t mean sketchy in the 1970s Disney see-the-lines sense, but more a general simplification in design that really doesn’t fit with the rest of the Renaissance so far.  I think the only character that the styles really fits is Hades.

Speaking of Hades, he’s far and away the best part of the movie.  In general I don’t like James Woods as an actor, but this is probably the best performance of his career.  His Hades is an evil Genie by way of a sleazy Hollywood talent agent, and I find him to be hilarious.  I didn’t ever really find him to be a credible threat, not in the way that Scar or Gaston are, but he’s really amusing in his ineffectualness and disdain for his even more incompetent minions.

The movie’s music is decent, if not spectacular.  A step down from Hunchback, but still light-years better than Pocahontas.  The decision to make the Greek chorus of narrators into a gospel girl group was actually an inspired one, and they get all of the best songs here.  In fact, I’d probably have enjoyed the soundtrack a little bit more if they’d just run with that completely throughout the movie, and not had any of the other characters sing at all.  As it is, though, I had to suffer through three minutes of Danny DeVito attempting to sing “One Last Hope.”

Verdict

Probably the best phrase to describe this movie is “over the top.”  Everything about it is heightened.  Big broad comedy, big broad character designs, oodles of pop-culture gags.  It really is Aladdin on steroids.  It’s a great movie for kids (my nieces watch it regularly), but it really doesn’t have the staying power or all-ages appeal of the best of Disney’s movies, especially when compared to most of the other Renaissance films.

Animation: B- (I might not like the design choices, but at least the movie is bright and colorful, and the hydra fight sequence is an impressive feat of CG animation only two years out from Toy Story)

Main Characters: B (Hercules is…fine.  He’s likeable, if a little dense. But there’s not much to him)

Supporting Characters: B (I actually really like Meg as the femme fatale love interest, but Danny DeVito works better as Phil on paper than in practice, and all of the other gods are underutilized)

Villains: A- (Hades is a joy, but he really needs some better quality help)

Songs: B (The Greek chorus songs are all great, but the rest of them are fairly forgettable)

Overall: B

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