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Hercules: The Commercial

(This review originally appeared in the June 19-25, 1997 Long Island Voice.)

Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels

Disney has achieved another breakthrough in animation with Hercules — it’s the first feature-length commercial. That sounds snide, but it’s true. Hercules isn’t awful, merely flawed.

The pop culture references are relentless (though I got a kick out of the one to Scar from The Lion King). Individually, they’re funny, but the sheer number of them becomes a distraction. It also strikes me as a bit cynical — what better way to make sure the kids demand Hercules action figures, Hercules clothing, Hercules meals, etc. than to constantly advertise them in the movie?

The animation is gorgeous, possibly some of the best Disney’s ever done. Since this studio set the standard for feature-length animation and keeps raising the bar, that’s saying something. The characters are fun and appropriately heroic, funny or threatening, depending upon the character. The actors do a great job and the cast boasts the voice work of James Woods, Danny DeVito, Rip Torn, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Barrie, Samantha Eggar, Bobcat Goldthwait, Matt Frewer and more. The music’s lively, but the lyrics pale a bit by comparison (I still miss Howard Ashman). The Greek Chorus done a la the Supremes is a lot of fun.

The "but" — and it’s a big one — is the plot. Taken purely at face value, while entertaining, Hercules doesn’t make sense. Early on, Hades sends his henchmen to kill Hercules. They fail but lie to Hades. Now, if you’re the god of the dead and the underworld, wouldn’t you know if the one person who could foil your plot didn’t end up in your realm? Wouldn’t you check? Wouldn’t you want to gloat? Then, at the climax, Hercules’ role in turning the tide seems pointless. While the gods were taken by surprise, it wasn’t an ambush. Each had time don their weapons and armor, yet they’re enslaved. So does Hercules single-handedly defeat the titans? Nope, he just frees the other gods who then trounce the bad guys. What was the point?

Disney brought the problem upon itself by being obsessed with topping itself. Since Aladdin, its animated films have followed an increasing rigid formula to the point that it’s becoming a hindrance: The villain has to have funny henchmen; the hero has to have a funny friend (which was common in prior Disney films), usually one that’s bizarre or an anthropomorphic creature (which wasn’t prior to the carpet in Aladdin); as many pop culture references as you can cram in, etc. It probably wouldn’t be quite so obvious if Disney commissioned original stories (hint, hint, hint), but because Hollywood today revolves around "pre-sold concepts" (i.e., a story people know, which will in turn draw fans), the amount of spinning, folding and mutilating required to force the stories into the mold and/or clean up an disturbing plot points (Hercules being illegitimate, the evil clergyman in Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc.) is huge.

Elaborating on or modifying a story works if you maintain the heart of the story. Making Belle’s father an inventor, adding an egotistical hunter trying to force her into marriage and adding a cast of servants-turned-household items worked wonderfully in Beauty and the Beast. It fleshed out the story and brought added dimension. The same held true for Aladdin.

But it disturbs me that generations of kids will view classic characters as villains when they weren’t. The darkest myth about Hades was when he fell in love with Persephone and kidnapped her. OK, that’s not acceptable behavior, but none of the versions of the story I ever read said that Persephone hated Hades. She simply missed the green earth and her mother, the goddess of agriculture, which led to her six months with her mother/six months with her husband arrangement. Yet Disney has to manufacture a villain because the real person who bedeviled Hercules was Hera, Zeus’ wife who was more than a bit miffed that Zeus strayed again. Can’t explain that to the kiddies, so Princess Alemena, Hercules real mother is erased, and Hera becomes mom. That led to more rewrites of the myth.

Worse, they seemed to superimpose Judeo-Christian concepts over the Greek myths. It shows the underworld in Hercules is an terrible place rather than one that encompassed both the Elysian Fields for the virtuous dead and Tartarus for evil ones. Meg, the heroine, has sold her soul to Hades in this version. I may be rusty on my ancient Greek philosophy, but I don’t remember the Greeks believing in a soul that could be transferred by a bargain. Hades seeking to overthrow Zeus definitely seems to be Lucifer influenced. Trust me folks, I’m not stretching for these comparisons. The film drops them in your lap.

I’m disappointed. I’m a big fan of Disney animation and Beauty and the Beast is one of my all-time favorite films, so I’d like to give Hercules an "A," but I can’t. If you’re desperate for something to do with the kids this summer, take them to see Hercules. They won’t be scared, and the film’s reasonably entertaining, so you won’t count the minutes until the end. But when you leave the theater, do them and yourself a favor and buy them a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Their teachers will thank you.

A Walt Disney release.

 

Review 1997 Long Island Voice. Accompanying stills 1997 Walt Disney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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