Hercules

Hercules(1997)

Before we talk about Hercules, can we talk about how terrible this video cover is? I don’t know if this is what was on the original VHS release or just something they whipped together for the re-issue, but my goodness is it awful. For one, if you’re going to make your gigantic muscular hero the focal point of the image, maybe don’t cover up the hero’s muscles with a smaller image of that same hero riding his flying horse with all his friends. Second, if you absolutely must have the ensemble cast there in the shot, maybe find room to squeeze the villain in somewhere? Especially when the movie happens to feature one of the most amusing and visually striking villains in the Disney canon? Just a thought, guys. And, oh yeah, just because you decided to put the hero’s face on the box twice doesn’t mean you have to draw him looking like a dippy tard.

A durr.

Enough about the box. If Disney movies have taught me anything, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And inside this stupid ugly box is a pretty good cartoon.

The Gospel Truth

In 1997, I was all geared up to hate this movie.

Believe it or not, there was a brief period during my teenage years where I tried to supress my interest in Disney movies. Aladdin and The Lion King were okay; they were released when I was of an age where all my friends still liked kids’ movies. And besides, they were both big manly stories with swordplay and adventure and ferocious animals and absolutely kick-ass Sega Genesis games. You were pushing your luck if you copped to liking Beauty and the Beast, but otherwise it was clear sailing.

But then Disney released Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, neither of which looked very exciting. Neither my brother nor any of my friends wanted to see them, even though I secretly did, so I let the issue drop and eventually convinced myself I’d grown out of Disney movies along with everyone else. When the previews for Hercules started airing — promising to be a high-action adventure story along the lines of Aladdin — I actively saught reasons to dislike it.

It wasn’t hard to find my angle. A chilhood obsession with fairy tales had matured into a dabbling in world mythologies, of which the Greek pantheon was my favorite. I already knew a little something about Hercules… like, for example, that his name wasn’t Hercules. That was the Roman name for the character, whose proper name was Heracles. So Disney had gotten his name wrong, and that was one strike against. And then they went and cast Hades as the villain which, ugh! How pedestrian. I knew quite well that the Greek gods were much more complicated than to simply be able to lump them into “good” and “evil” groups — Hades wasn’t supposed to be a “bad guy” any more than Zeus was supposed to be a “good guy”. Clearly this fool movie had been thrown together by people who had no idea what the hell they were doing. It was beneath me. I felt quite smug in my dismissal of it.

It would be another couple years before someone explained to me the concept of “artistic license”.

The very next year, coinciding with the VHS re-release of The Little Mermaid, I decided I didn’t care anymore who knew I was into cartoons. Good timing, too; just in time to catch Mulan and Tarzan. Sometime after those movies hit DVD I eventually went back and made my peaced with Hercules. Though I still had a hard time choking down some of the inaccuracies (The ancient Greeks know who Cleopatra is? Hera is Hercules’s mother?) I was delighted at just how many sly references they managed to get right. In particular, I was impressed to see Nessus mentioned by name. I grinned at Scar’s cameo as the Nemean lion. And “Someone dial I-X-I-I!” remains one of my favorite Disney gags.

Most of all, though, I loved Hades. What I first thought would be the movie’s most glaring flaw became the thing I liked most about it.

“We dance, we kiss, we shmooze, we go home. Whaddaya say?”

Disney villains are supposed to be scary. Not, like, nightmare scary, you understand. But scary enough that they pose a convincing threat to the hero and provide a strong enough presence that the audience has someone to root against. Looked at from this perspective Hades had some big shoes to fill, coming in along the coattails of the ambitiously cunning Scar and the dark-hearted Frollo.

Instead, they go a bit of a different direction, and make Hades a funny villain. This isn’t new ground either, when you consider the cowardly Prince John or foppish Gaston. The difference is that Hades is a comedian, rather than an oaf. He’s not clumsy, or stupid, or bumbling. Rather, he cuts apart all his scenes with a razor-like sarcasm. He talks fast, he cracks wise, he plays with words. Being a god, Hades is immortal, untouchable and immutable. And so his threat and presence come from a different sort of place entirely: a twisted sense of humor that works on a different wavelength from the rest of the cast.

The film establishes the strength of Hades’s comedic timing early on by showing us how bad the rest of the cast is at it. While shmoozing with the rest of the gods just after Hercules is born, Zeus dismisses Hades’s complaints about being stuck in the Underworld by quipping, “You’ll work yourself to death.” Realizing he has inadvertantly cracked a joke (because Hades is the god of death roflmao), Zeus collapses into his chair with thunderous laughter, and the rest of the gods join in. Everyone but Hades, that is. Because, see, Zeus’s joke isn’t funny, and Hades alone knows that. It’s lame, B-rate material even for a kiddie movie, and the over-the-top reaction to it gets is totally inappropriate. It’s a lampshade, a huge neon sign buzzing, “These aren’t the jokes, people.”

This persists through the rest of the movie. Funny things happen to the rest of the cast, as Herc and his companions find themselves in silly situations. Phil the satyr, in particular, is the butt of more than his fair share of physical comedy. But Hades gets all the good material. It’s not the kind of humor you laugh at, of course. But you smile appreciatively. It’s clever and snappy, more how he says things than the things he says. A good approximation might be to think of Aladdin‘s Genie, if he were the bad guy

The other half of Hades’s personality is anger. Every Disney villain is prone to outbursts of violent rage, but Hades is particularly good at it because of his unique visual quirk: fiery blue hair. Hades’s hair is every bit as expressive as his face and voice. It flares up brightly when he gets mad, simmers down and smooths back as he cools down again. Disney has always been good at breathing life into inanimate objects, but the fireball on Hades’s head is the only instance I can recall of that sort of detail being paid to one aspect of an actual character. And, bringing things around full circle, Hades’s propensity to give off light and heat is put to good effect for some cute visual gags, touching back on his humorous core. As far as Disney villains go, Hades is definitely one of the good ones.

One Last Hopeless

I wish the same could be said for the movie’s comic relief, to wit: Hades’s bumbling gremlin sidekicks Pain and Panic, and Herc’s satyr buddy Phil. Let us first observe that, if any Disney flick had no use for comic relief, certainly it’s Hercules. I mean, the movie is strong on visual comedy and has Hades picking up most of the rest of the slack. That could have been enough, but no, Disney movies are contractually obligated to have some number of annoying hangers-on to pad out the exposition and pull commercial sound bytes from.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes these characters are put to great use. Ariel and Aladdin have no shortage of animal buddies following them around, but a point is generally made to put each one to good use somewhere on the plot graph. You could argue, for example, that Scuttle ends up saving the day in The Little Mermaid. Not bad for braindead seagull.

That sort of consideration isn’t paid in Hercules, unfortunately. The gremlins are almost obtrusively bad, right from their ham-fisted introduction. Panic is a nervous tittering wreck, and Pain gets himself stabbed in the butt twice within thirty seconds of showing his face. Oh, oh, because those are their names! Get it? Get it? It’s like Zeus’s non-joke from the previous scene, except this time it’s played perfectly straight. Every one of their scenes is like that; flat, embarrassing, and lifeless.

Pain and Panic were not put in this movie because they have a role to play or a part to fulfill. They were put there because there was a market-tested checklist of character archetypes that worked in the last four Disney movies, and so this next one had to have them too. And while we’re at it, can we get Bobcat Goldthwait to do one of the voices? Pretty please? Maybe the gremlins wouldn’t stick out so sorely if Hades’s control over the film’s heroine Meg weren’t already a key plot point. She makes a much better minion by any metric you care to use. If Hades really does need some groveling, nonspecific underlings, I wish they had gone a bit more Flotsam-and-Jetsam and a bit less Iago-on-steroids.

Phil was a bigger disappointment, though, chiefly because you can’t have a movie without him. Herc needs a buddy, someone to learn from, to disappoint, and to eventually reconcile with. It’s a shame, because (botched musical number aside) Danny DeVito makes for an excellent sidekick. Phil is exactly the sort of jaded, world-weary voice of experience needed to temper Herc’s naivety and recklessness. It should have worked, but it didn’t, because the character ends up being so damn inconsistent.

Let me see if I can explore that a bit. Hercules shows up on Phil’s island (or whatever) looking for a hero trainer. Phil initially rebuffs Hercules quite forcefully, but then immediately shifts gears and invites Herc inside so he can give him a tour of all the former failed heroes he has trained. There’s something to be said for a gruff or aggressive character having a softer side, but Phil’s soft side isn’t exposed gradually or in response to anything Herc says or does. One minute it’s “scram, kid!” and the next it’s “come inside, I want to show you something”.

Later in the movie that same abrupt, pointless shift happens in reverse. Phil has to tell Herc that Meg has betrayed him, and tries to do it lightly because he knows it will break the poor big lug’s heart. Herc, of course, doesn’t want to hear the news, and reacts in exactly the way Phil has anticipated: denial and anger. You would think this is where Phil gives the kid some space to let it all sink in, but nope! Instead, Phil storms off, declaring Hercules to be a hopeless chump. This is an important distinction, here: Hercules doesn’t throw Phil out, Phil gives up and leaves voluntarily. Isn’t he supposed to be the mature one, here?

Finally, sad to say, it doesn’t help at all that Phil gets the movie’s worst song. One Last Hope isn’t just the low point in Hercules‘s soundtrack, but probably one of the most un-listenable songs in any Disney feature. The rhymes are forced, the song doesn’t scan at all, and though I’ve watched the film twice through this week I’ll be buggered sideways if I can find the melody in it. It constantly sounds like Danny DeVito wanted to talk his way through the lyrics rather than sing them, which puts a damper on Phil’s character as well as what should have been a really charming montage sequence. It ain’t Hakuna Matata, is my point. Now there were some goofy sidekicks who could pull their weight.

I Won’t Say (I’m in Love (With This Song))

Fortunately, One Last Hope isn’t representative of the soundtrack as a whole. The first thing to happen onscreen is the Greek Muses are re-cast as a black gospel quintet, which is such an obviously brilliant decision it almost wouldn’t have made sense not to do it. I typically find Disney choruses to be extremely dull (part of why I have a rough time watching the oldest Disney films), but the Muses immediately steal the show and inject some vibrance into the plot before the movie even gets started. The whole soundtrack has a soulful flavor to it that I think is unique amongst its peers.

Every Disney film with a romantic subplot has a love song, and Hercules is no exception. Hercules has the best one, though. My fondness for I Won’t Say borders on the irrational. I have a weakness for showtunes (part of why I love Disney films), and the quickest way to twang that weakness is to stir in some shoo-be-doo-wop. Which the Muses do. In spades. I also love the strong and somewhat clever lyricism; aside from the questionable opening line the whole song is formed with catchy phrases and half-rhymes, giving it a smooth and listenable flow. I don’t think I’ve ever skipped I Won’t Say when it’s popped up on the playlist. Best of all, while Meg and the Muses manage to stay out of each other’s way while they switch off from solo to harmony. You can tell what they’re saying. That’s often a rare duck in the great tapestry of Disney music.

It definitely doesn’t hurt that Susan Egan comes packing one of the sexiest singing voices in animation. Most Disney damsels can’t rightly get away with sexy.

The canonical Disney romance song has the hero and heroine falling dopily in love with each other, either while singing a duet or while being serenaded by some combination of their sidekicks and the chorus. (Beauty and the Beast has it both ways!) They have to sometimes tweak the characters’ noses a bit to make this work, especially in the case of a duet, because let’s face it: not every character archetype lends itself well to a saccharine love sequence. Hercules himself is such a character; he’s far too honest and direct to gradually unravel his feelings over the course of two verses and a refrain. Having him sing half of the song would have felt forced, and so would have showing him silently reacting to an offscreen chorus. Indeed, once Herc knows what his feelings for Meg are, he comes right out and tells her. There’s no grace or nuance to it, it’s right there in the open, just like the rest of his personality.

It wouldn’t have worked for Meg, either. Remember, she’s not your average wistful and demure Disney princess; she is mocking and sardonic, constantly teasing, sometimes unpleasant. She is very purposely the kind of person it’s difficult to get close to. Meg is expected to spend much of her screen time keeping pace with Hades, after all. If they had simply shown her melting into Herc’s arms, we wouldn’t have believed it.

And yet the checklist must be served, so the puzzle of the romance song was solved with I Won’t Say. Hercules has already declared his undying love and been whisked off the scene, leaving Meg to stew with her conflicting feelings. The song isn’t about falling in love — that’s already happened. It’s about Meg’s reluctance to admit it to herself, having been burned so badly by this game before. The boring offscreen chorus has already been usurped by the Muses, who pull double-duty in this song by acting as Meg’s subconscious. (Which is sort of what what Muses do, in Greek mythology. That subtlety really pleased the pedant in me when I first watched the film, years ago.)

Put more succinctly: usually the characters are made to serve these romance sequences. In Hercules, the sequence serves the characters instead. It’s a better fit.

Attack of the 50-Foot CGI Monstrosity

You know what’s not a great fit? Slapping CGI monsters into a traditionally-animated feature. The 90s were an awesome time for high-quality Disney movies, but it was kind of a weird limbo as far as animation styles were concerned. Most animation was done at least partially by computer in those days, and it was still a strange balancing act trying to find how much was appropriate, and how to properly cover up the bits that weren’t.

Let me run the timeline by you here. You had Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, both of which had some cutting-edge CGI sequences which, while visually stunning, clashed terribly with the rest of the film. The smart bit of these sequences is that they were used to facilitate movement within the environment, so as to create dynamic skewing and rotation effects that would be impossible by hand. After that I didn’t watch Disney movies for a few years. Then I watched Mulan and Tarzan, both of which hid their use of CGI far more deftly. I felt those two films had perfected the craft.

So when I went back and watched Hercules, I was shocked by two things. First, by how much better the CGI had gotten in just the short time between Hercules and Mulan. And second, by the sheer chutzpah involved in using computer graphics to render a huge multi-headed dragon. Hell’s bells, just look at this thing:

I’m sorry, but that’s not a Disney monster, that’s the end boss to a PlayStation game. That thing couldn’t be more out of place if a cross-fade and a Latin chorus had accompanied it onto the screen. As far as I know, this hydra is the only anomaly of its kind. No other movie’s use of CGI is quite this… I don’t know… sore thumb.

It’s baffling, too, because the climactic fight sequence against all the gigantic monsters at the end of the movie looks so much better. Were the Titans rendered, as well? Because if so, the animators did a much better job making them fit in with the rest of the characters and scenery.

Was Hercules a weird spot to kick off this little Disney-a-thon? I don’t know. I think it might be a good average of the entire series as a whole. It’s a little obscure, certainly not a bombastic fan favorite, and yet it’s perfectly enjoyable if you ever sit down to actually watch it. Not just that, but there are spots where it really excels, really makes you stand up and take notice. Yes, it’s the product of a giant movie factory that spits out a new flavor every single year, and it’s easy to get lost in the deluge. It tries to spread its wings even as it keeps its feet firmly on the ground, and you can’t help but notice the spots where the analogy-bird stretches itself too thin as a result. But you watch it and remember that, despite their shortcomings, each of these movies still has a touch of magic in it. And really, that’s more than you could ask.

You and me, Herc, we’re on good terms now. I don’t mind so much anymore those losers got your name wrong.

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5 comments to Hercules

  • Flickflack

    I pretty much agree with you completely on this. Which is a relief, because I’m continually stunned by the number of people who hate the gospel-Vegas muses because “it’s ancient Greece; they didn’t have gospel”. I thought that musical direction was nothing short of inspired and it worked perfectly.

    Also, I think this movie has a case of casting making all the difference in the world. There are very few actors that could have pulled off Hades, and I think James Woods was an absolutely perfect choice. Wikipedia claims that Woods ad libbed a lot of his lines, which probably explains it. But even without that, his dry wit and speed were utterly perfect. I think there’s a good chance the movie would have failed with someone else as Hades; he holds it all together.

  • Nice read, and as I too grew up reading mythology, I reacted to the naming as well. Thought I was alone in the world until I read this.
    Heracles – Zevs – Hades
    Hercules – Jupiter – Pluto
    Of course, Disney isn’t the only sinner, as it seems most American pop culture likes to mix Greek and Roman mythology and naming into the same universe. Maybe the Hercules name is selling better than Heracles?

    • Flickflack

      I wager that the vast majority of people in the US have no idea about the Hercules/Heracles difference and think it’s different spelling for the same thing. Moreover, they don’t care. Hell, I know the difference and I don’t care.

  • spineshark

    Dude, of course Hera and Zeus are Hercules’ parents. They’re married!

  • MetManMas

    I didn’t get the Hercules/Heracles naming snafu until years later (sanitized Greek mythology books, LucasArts games, and syndicated television just didn’t give a crap), but I was aware that Heracles was one of Zeus’s many kids from sleeping around with mortal women, and that Hera did what she could to torment him. Actually, compared to the other gods and goddesses, Hades was a pretty nice guy! But of course, artistic liberties. James Woods as Hades is the best thing.

    As for the CGI Hydra, it’s been way too long since I’ve seen the movie, but wow. The lack of polygons shows in those necks. It’s nowhere near as bad as Spy Kids 2 (I know, live action) where the animators didn’t even try to make the CGI monstrosities and skeletons fit in, but it’s certainly a low point for computer visual effects worked into traditional animation, especially for Disney.

    Oh well, if anything surprises me about the Hydra, it’s how Hercules still managed to get a G rating with its decapitations, especially the first one. Sure, the blood and gore’s green, but it’s still pretty graphic for a Disney film.

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