Saturday, November 8, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 27th June 1997

If The Hunchback of Notre Dame seemed like a strange choice of story to turn into an animated film, the Greek myth of Hercules seems even stranger! We're talking about a story where the demigod hero - a product of a god's infedelity - slaughters many people, takes many wives and lovers, and is made to complete twelve difficult (and bloodthirsty) tasks.

Of course, with Disney being Disney, much creative licence is taken, and the well-known plot is not allowed to get in the way of a fun and entertaining roller-coaster ride that spoofs celebrity culture.

Back in the mid-1980s when directors were offering suggestions for movies, Ron Clements and John Musker were keen to direct "Treasure Island In Space," but boss Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn't keen on the idea. They ended up directing The Little Mermaid and Aladdin instead. After Aladdin they once again put forth their passion project "Treasure Island In Space." Katzenberg struck a deal with the directors. He said if they would make Hercules, he would let them create their long-awaited sci-fi. So that's what they did. As with Aladdin, the directors put themselves in the movie as brief cameos as young Hercules is running his father's cart to the market.

The role of bad-guy Hades was originally going to be played by Jack Nicholson. Danny DeVito (who had already been cast as Philoctetes) convinced Nicholson to visit the studio to see what they were doing. Nicholson was apparently very impressed with the character and the process, but he was asking for much, MUCH more money than Disney was willing to pay, as well as cuts of the merchandising profits. Disney politely refused.

Luckily though, this opened up an opportunity to hire James Woods to play the role. Woods brought a whole new vibe to the "Disney Villain" concept, and as well as being menacing and creepy, was one of the comic highlights of the movie!

Hercules was a big departure from its two much more serious predecessors. It is an out-and-out comedy adventure set in ancient Greece, and it's not at all afraid to be a cartoon. Sadly, its off-the-wall style did not resonate with audiences. Even though it was critically praised by critics, it had the lowest box office sales since The Rescuers Down Under.

Taking inspiration from the ancient Greek tradition of painting myths on pottery, Hercules begins with a hall filled with pots and urns. Just as the serious-sounding narrator begins to tell the tale, five Muses decide to take over the narration and make it a bit more fun. "Lighten up, dude!" they tell the narrator.

And so, with an African-American gospel flair, the Muses tell the tale of how Zeus locked the rampaging titans away and saved the world from destruction.

High above Mount Olympus, the gods are having a celebration. Zeus and Hera have had a baby, and they named him Hercules.

The only god not overjoyed at the arrival is Hades, Lord of the Underworld.

Hades has an ongoing job to look after all the dead people of the world, but he doesn't enjoy his lot in life. He dreams of overtaking Zeus's position as king of Mount Olympus. He invites the Fates to the Underworld to discover how he might go about this hostile takeover bid. The Fates explain that at a certain point in time, 18 years in the future, the planets will align and allow him to unleash the Titans and take over Mount Olympus. The only thing that would stand in his way is the new baby god, Hercules.

Hades sends his imps - Pain and Panic - to capture Hercules and use a potion to turn him into a mortal, thus allowing him to be killed.

But because Hercules doesn't drink the last drop of the potion he retains his god-like strength. He is discovered by a farmer and his wife, and they adopt the child as their own son.

Many years later, Hercules has become a nice young man. His only problem is his inability to control his strength and his klutzy nature.

After Hercules unwittingly causes the destruction of a marketplace and is called names by his friends and neighbours, he begins to think that he doesn't belong there. He feels a need to be somewhere else; somewhere he can be accepted and praised for his abilities instead of ridiculed.

His parents finally tell him that he was found as a baby, before sending him to the Temple of Zeus to discover his true origins.

The statue of Zeus comes to life and tells Hercules that if he can become a "True Hero," he will become a god again. Herc's old friend Pegasus arrives, to help him find Philoctetes, the trainer of heroes.

Philoctetes ("Call me Phil") is a cynical satyr. He reluctantly agrees to help Hercules become a hero. And so the training begins.

Once Hercules passes his training, he and Phil head for the city of Thebes. But on the way Herc attempt to rescue his very first damsel in distress. The damsel, a young lady named Megara, doesn't particularly WANT to be rescued, but Herc does it anyway.

Unknown to Hercules, Meg is actually a minion of Hades. She has been doing his bidding to work off a sentence she owes him.

Phil and Hercules land in Thebes (the "Big Olive") and set about trying to find some problems to solve.

Who should suddenly appear but Meg! She tells Hercules that some boys have been trapped in a landslide. As Hercules rescues the boys (Pain and Panic in disguise) he unwittingly releases the Hydra. After a fierce battle Herc gruesomely beheads the monster, only to find that every time he cuts off a head, three more grow in its place!

He eventually prevails, and becomes an instant celebrity. With his super-strength, Hercules is tested against many monsters as he gets more and more popular.

Before long Hercules's fame knows no equal! And this perfect package packs a pair of pretty pecs!

Hades, furious that he can't seem to kill Hercules, realises that perhaps Meg might be able to get closer than the average person. He tells her that all she has to do is discover Herc's weakness, and she will be free from her sentence. Meanwhile, Zeus tells Hercules that even though he is famous, he hasn't proven himself to be a "true hero" yet... Frustrating news for Hercules.

Meg convinces Herc to go on a date. They have a wonderful time together before Phil breaks it up.

The Muses sneakily encourage Meg to admit to herself that she might be in love with Hercules, but she won't say it... at least out loud.

Phil, finally realising who Meg works for, tries to tell Hercules the truth, but Herc won't listen, pushing Phil out of his life. Suddenly Hades appears, introduces himself, and convinces Herc to give up his strength for a day in order to save Meg's life. The only condition is that the deal will be broken if Meg gets hurt.

With the hero out of the way, Hades races to the titans' prison and releases them as the planets align.

Hades sends the cyclops to Thebes to kill Hercules, now that he is mortal. Hercules is about to admit defeat when Phil arrives with a last-minute pep-talk.

But then suddenly, as Hercules is about to be crushed by a falling pillar, Meg pushes him out of the way and gets crushed herself. With Meg injured, Hades' deal is broken and Hercules's strength is restored.

Hercules flies to Mount Olympus to find it under attack by Hades and his titans. Herc frees his father from imprisonment and together they destroy the titans once and for all.

By the time he returns to Meg though, she has passed away and her soul has gone to the Underworld. Never one to admit defeat, Hercules (somehow) travels to the Underworld and confronts Hades in an attempt to get Meg back her life. Swimming through the river of souls, Herc risks his own life to save Meg's.

This act of selfless love turns him into a true hero, and this results in him finally becoming a god once again! His first act of divinity is to punch Hades's face in... literally.

After that he restores Meg's soul to her body, and they travel to Mount Olympus together. Hercules is offered a place in the heavens, but chooses to live a mortal life on Earth so that he can be with Meg. We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy.

IRVYNE: This movie really is the "anti-Hunchback." I suppose it goes to show how diverse Disney's animation empire had become. Hercules is first and foremost a comedy. It's full of hilarious characters, ridiculous situations and a very light and celebratory tone. The real winner of the film is James Woods's Hades, who instead of being some kind of evil mastermind, comes across as more of a used car salesman with a really bad temper.

Meg is certainly not your typical Disney heroine. She's not at all naive. She's been around the block and it's made her pretty cynical. She's played with real sass by Susan Egan, who was the original Belle in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast.

It's also nice to have a different story structure, with the Muses being (literally) a Greek Chorus of storytellers throughout the whole piece. The only criticism I have of the plot is the scene near the end where Hercules says, "Yes I can..." and then he's suddenly in the Underworld, arriving on Hades's doorstep. Whoa whoa... Wait a minute... How the heck did he get there? How does a mortal get into the Land of the Dead...? Surely there's an exciting story to that. But no, we never learn HOW he got there, he just... did. I suppose it was edited for time.

Overall, there's not a huge amount of substance to Hercules, but it is a lot of fun. It's not made to be taken too seriously.

While nowhere near as complex or beautiful as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules has a consistent and bright aesthetic. It is by far and away the most "cartoony" looking feature of the era. Laws of physics hold no sway in this film, and there are moments of pure Saturday-morning-cartoon style, both in the visuals and the sound effects.

All of the characters are very nicely animated in this over-the-top and free style. Hercules himself was supervised by Andreas Deja, who had previously been "the villains guy" after animating Gaston, Jafar and Scar. Speaking of the latter, the one-time lion king makes a cute little cameo in Hercules, as a pelt that the hero is posing in.

You can tell that the animators were going for a very specific "larger-than-life" approach to the character designs, and it works well.

Alan Menken returned for his sixth Disney soundtrack, this time teaming up with lyricist David Zippel. The duo would go on to write the pastiche tune "Star Spangled Man" for Captain America: The First Avenger, but apart from that, have not worked commercially together since Hercules.
With this combination of African-American gospel and classic heroic themes, Menken once again created a score that sounds nothing like any of his others.

Hercules gets his own song with "Go The Distance," Meg gets hers with "I Won't Say I'm In Love" and even Phil gets a song with "One Last Hope." The rest of the songs - "The Gospel Truth," "Zero To Hero" and "A Star Is Born" are sung by the Muses.

"Go The Distance" was nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards, but for the second year in a row, Menken went home empty-handed. The Oscar went to "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic.
Even though it's less of a conventional musical, I adore Hercules's music. I can remember buying the C.D. as soon as it was released (before the movie even came out!) and singing all of the songs over and over again. It's another Menken classic.

I have a very strong memory regarding this film. It was my 18th birthday. I had gone for my driver's licence test and failed. I was very sad, and I didn't want to be sad on my first day as an adult. So I went with my family to see Hercules at the cinemas. I came out of that movie feeling much happier.
It's a real shame Hercules underperformed at the box office. I wouldn't say it's my favourite of the Disney classics, but I always enjoy watching it. It was a nice 180 degree turn-around and change-of-pace after Hunchback. Perhaps some people find it a bit too silly and fluffy - I doubt many people would take away any life-learning themes from this film - but sometimes all you want is a quick laugh. And Hercules delivers that.
MALEFICENT: If I was to watch this movie often, I would fast-forward it until he's a grown-up.

PASCAL: Awww, but Hercules and Pegasus as babies! They're so cute!

ANNA: I don't find Meg to be a very lovable character. I want to slap her.

SHENZI: I think she's awesome.

MALEFICENT: She is delicious! She's one of the hottest Disney characters ever.

WENDY: Yeah, I love her. She doesn't have to be like all the other Disney princesses. It would be fun to talk in a sultry voice all the time like she does.

RAPUNZEL: I like Meg because she's tough. She doesn't need a man to sweep her off her feet.

HAKU: She has an impossibly skinny waistline.

WENDY: Well yes. It's Disney. Everyone has a tiny waist.

IRVYNE: For me, it's Hades who makes this movie.

WENDY: Hades is so fantastic. He makes me want to be a villain. I love it when he gets so angry his flames change colour!

PASCAL: It's interesting, because a blue flame is actually HOTTER than a red flame.

IRVYNE: So when he's getting fired up, he's actually cooling down!

ANNA: It's funny when Pegasus blows his hair out.

MALEFICENT: Hades is just awesome. I always want him to win!

SHENZI: I love how Pain and Panic can morph into so many different things.

RAPUNZEL: I think Hermes is funny.


IRVYNE: That's Paul Shaffer from The Late Show!

MALEFICENT: Phil is a fun character too. And he's got a good song.

HAKU: Danny DeVito isn't really a singer though, is he?

MALEFICENT: He doesn't have to be. He's Danny DeVito.

IRVYNE: ... Who, for an Italian-American, sounds very Jewish in this movie!

SHENZI: There's so many one-liners in this movie, and they go by so fast.

HAKU: There was that line where Hercules talks about seeing a play of Oedipus Rex, and he says, "I thought I had problems!"

SHENZI: I love, love, LOVE the music!... And that is the gospel truth!

IRVYNE: Amen, sister!

SHENZI: I think it might be my favourite soundtrack. You just feel like you can sing along with every song.

MALEFICENT: You might hate me for this, but I really don't like "Go The Distance."

WENDY: That's apparently a notoriously overused song in auditions. It becomes ironic when the people singing it DON'T actually go the distance.

MALEFICENT: Apart from that song, I love the music. The Muses are fantastic. And they're hot. Like Beyonce.

IRVYNE: What, five Beyonces?

MALEFICENT: Well, four Beyonces and Aretha!
ANNA: The Muses remind me of the "Dynamites" from Hairspray.

IRVYNE: Or the urchins from Little Shop of Horrors. The "Greek Chorus" concept is pretty common.
HAKU: I like the music, but I feel like the film could have worked fine without songs.

IRVYNE: *gasp* Blasphemy!

HAKU: For example, it's blindingly obvious that Hercules didn't drink the last drop of potion. Then the Muses start singing about him not drinking the last drop, and I'm like, "We know. We just watched it."

ANNA: I wish I KNEW the songs, because I wanted to sing along.

IRVYNE: So Anna, this was your first time seeing Hercules?

ANNA: Yes.

HAKU: I don't think I'd seen it since the cinemas... So I didn't remember any of it.

PASCAL: I don't reckon I've seen it more than once either.

WENDY: It's pretty wild. It feels like a Looney Tunes cartoon at times. I don't know that I like the design. I understand that the characters are supposed to be caricatures and it's all stylised and over-expressive. It's clever how they've based it on the design of the Greek platters to make it look like they've come to life. I just prefer the more "classic" look.

MALEFICENT: Everything is curls. Curly ears, curly smoke, curly nipples.
HAKU: There are times in this movie where the animation looks a bit cheap.

IRVYNE: I think it stands out especially since we just watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

SHENZI: I like that it's never actually trying to look real.

WENDY: I like that they use a different visual style for each movie.

SHENZI: It's probably my third favourite Disney overall. I love the story, I love the music. Just something about it resonates with me.

ANNA: Really? It doesn't rate on my list.

IRVYNE: I like it for what it is. It's Disney just keeping it light and fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment