Not counting once when it was on in the background around Christmastime, I haven’t seen Hercules since its original theatrical run, since which time it has more or less established itself as one of the group of ‘Disney Renaissance’ films that provided a bit of a latter-day golden era for the studio, although in my opinion it was the beginning of that happy decade petering out, with Mulan and Tarzan rounding out the success story with some weaker works.
But Hercules, which I tend to consider amongst the less impressive of the era’s films, was in every way stronger than I had given it credit for. It’s actually a very solid, likeable and memorable piece, and in every area – story, music, humour, production and performances – it succeeds. It may not have the emotional impact of The Lion King or the outright bizarre genius of Aladdin, but it certainly works, and works well.
Perhaps the best move Disney made with this film was to get Gerald Scarfe in to do the character designs. Scarfe, most famous for bringing to life those wonderful marching hammers and grotesque schoolteachers and judges that are the highlights of the film for Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but is also a very well-known political cartoonist. His strange style can be easily seen in the characters of The Wall, especially the huge pointy noses of the Fates and the little minions Pain and Panic. His aesthetic is darker and more grotesque than most Disney, even when it comes to bad guys, so the way this film stands out somewhat is unsurprising but welcome – and his stamp is certainly on the trip into the Underworld. And his design for Hades, coupled with James Woods’ brilliant fast-talking New Yorker performance, is a triumph.
A fast-talking New Yorker? Yes, indeed, it’s only going to take a few seconds of this film for the Classical Scholar and the layman alike to realise that this film is gleefully full of anachronisms, much like Aladdin is (and never mind silly theories that Aladdin is in fact set in a post-apocalyptic far-future wasteland based on how long the Genie says he’s been in the lamp). In fact, simply the fact that they use the better-known Roman name for Hercules but the Greek names for everyone else probably tipped off most before the film starts filling the screen with references to American Express and a whole lot of soul/gospel music. The take on Greek mythology is somewhat singular – a very faithful father-figure Zeus actually conceives Hercules with Hera, instead of with some mortal woman when disguised as her wife/a swan/some rain. He is made mortal by insidious Hades, who has been told by the Fates that only this new child can ruin his plan to free the imprisoned Titans (elemental monstrosities rather than Cronus and co) and take over Mount Olympus. Well, firstly, it’s fine to muck about with Greek myth – it’s really not as if the Greeks were very consistent themselves, and there are plenty of different versions. And secondly, let’s be honest – this is still Disney, and the old Olympian Gods aren’t that compatible with the family values expected of them.
The voice acting is great, even if Danny de Vito’s predictable turn as Philoctetes – a name chosen, I feel, because it was easily shortened to the recognisable ‘Phil’ – and Rip Torn’s enjoyably warm Zeus are the only big-name celebrities to pick out on the cast list…though the lovely old-school epic opening has Charlton Heston narrating for some authenticity, which was a lovely idea, harking back to not only the big epics but older Disney films with opening narrations. Femme fatale Meg is definitely one of the more complicated and interesting Disney heroines. And the Muses get some of the best lines in their songs, a couple of which – ‘Zero to Hero’ and ‘Go the Distance’ – really stand the test of time. WHO PUT THE HRRK IN HERCULES?
There’s only one thing that holds Hercules back a little from being one of the classics, and that’s…well, Hercules. Both as a kid (with a weird chin) and as an adult, the problem is that he’s just…kinda bland. He has to be the archetypal hero, but that just adds to how uninteresting he is. I root for him, I just…don’t particularly care for him. The result is…a slight hollow feeling.