Rating -

Animated (US); 1997; Rated G; 92 Minutes


Tate Donovan: Hercules
Joshua Keaton: Young Hercules
Danny DeVito: Philoctetes
James Woods: Hades, Lord of the Underworld
Susan Egan: Megara
Bobcat Goldthwait: Pain
Matt Frewer: Panic
Rip Torn: Zeus

Produced by Ron Clements, Alice Dewey, Kendra Halland and John Musker; Directed by Ron Clements, Michael Lange and John Musker; Screenwritten by Ron Clements, Don McEnery, Irene Mecchi, John Musker and Bob Shaw; based on the story by Barry Johnson

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Written by DAVID KEYES

If the Greek gods of had been as funny and colorful as they are portrayed in Disney's "Hercules," then studying mythology in school might not have been such a drag. In their literary forms, the lords of the elements (such as fire and water) are often described in ludicrous detail (some have produced multiple-digit children, others can change landscapes by a single body movement). Only the visual interpretations of these Gods catch the eye; they have amazing, vivid appearances, but their beauty only goes skin deep, simply because their characteristics are far-fetched and stale.

Praise Hera that the animation department took its own approach. Disney's version of the story of that buff hero Hercules is one that roars to life in nearly every minor detail. It has color, comedy, great music, exciting twists, ironic fates, inside jokes and delectable pairings, all assorted in a style so well conceived by the animators that it is unlike any attempt of the studio's past. By choosing to undertake mythology in their movie, the producers give us a representation of characters that lack the enchantment in print. On screen, their physiques, attitudes and special powers attract attention that the literary representations only wish they could. It is no wonder the story is interpreted through animation--like mythology, it is a limitless dimension, without rules regulations or logical barriers. The treatment leaps out of a world isolated by seriousness, and finds its place in a world already responsible for countless Disney classics.

In the story, Zeus and Hera, gods of the famed mount Olympus (which extends up into the clouds above), have just given birth to a son named Hercules. The proud parents of this bouncing baby throw a celebration in his honor, in which all the Greek gods are invited to bestow gifts to the infant (the most notable of which is Pegasus, a flying horse brought to life out of the clouds by Hercules' father). For a moment, there is a touch of sentiment involved between father and son, but it is then interrupted by the introduction of the villain Hades, who floats instead of walks, has sharp teeth, and fire hair that changes color, depending on his mood.

Angered that Zeus has "charitably bestowed" a full-time gig in the underworld on him, the God that relishes on death plans a hostile takeover on Olympus, to occur in 18 years time when all the planets align. But the fates, three witches who share one eye ball, warn Hades that the plan has loopholes. "If Hercules should fight," one says, "you shall fail." The simple solution: kill Hercules. But can a God be killed? Sure, if he's turned mortal first. Arming his henchmen with a vial of mortal juice, Hades send them off to transform Hercules, and kill him so his plan's loose ends will be all tied up. That is his first mistake.

Pain and Panic succeed in their mission--sort of. To be transformed mortal, or so the movie thinks, one must drink every last drop of the fluid contained in the vial (which, interestingly enough, has a lid in the shape of skeleton crossbones). When the henchmen are scared off by a sudden noise, they drop the bottle, and Hercules is left alone, mortal but still retaining his godlike strength because of his inability to finish off the fluid. Hercules grows on Earth from then on, knowing that his strength generates fear in other humans, with no recollection of ever living up in the clouds. Naturally, Hades' henchmen fail to mention that the kid never did die as he was supposed to, and so the God's plans for domination go underway. How does he, then, fix this problem before he rearranges the cosmos? Ahh, but if I told you that, then I'd be giving away too many goodies.

Narrating all of these events are five muses, who walk past large images of Gods painted on pottery, and sing gospel. Such a treatment might have toned down the comical script, which is like a feast for the viewer, but the music's lyrics are so well-written that they do not pose as a problem. Gospel and mythology are two different things, but in "Hercules," they fit together precisely. Another special touch is the brief voice-over given by Charlton Heston at the opening of the picture, in which his voice begins the story of Hercules so poorly that the Muses interrupt, announcing that "he's makin' the story sound like some Greek tragedy." When they offer to pick up where he left off, his proclamation is a humorous one: "You go girl."

To tone down the absurdity, some characters have been given drastic personality makeovers. Take the portrayal of Zeus, for starters: legend tells us he is the God of Lightning, and father to over a dozen children, mostly by different women. Now look at Disney's version; the father of Hercules is not one of those Gods whose ego is the size of Olympus, but one whose heart and goofy personality turn him into nothing but a big teddy bear. Another shift: Hades' literary interpretation describes the God of the underworld as a bitter, merciless lord with no compassion for the human soul. In the movie, the guise of the underworld's Lord is given the voice of James Woods, hair that changes color to match his mood, and an attitude that can only be described as comically ruthless. To top the cake off, he is given two idiot henchmen named Pain and Panic, who stir up so much trouble they easily inflame their bosses anger.

The one flaw that keeps me from liking "Hercules" completely, however, is the ending, which is written in a predictable way only to satisfy the needs of the modern Disney formula (you know, guy loves girl, guy gives up his past to get girl, etc.). Hades' efforts to rule Olympus almost succeed at the end, but narrowly, and predictably, they are vanquished by a sudden strength renewal in Hercules himself. Once the strong lug gets his godlike essence back, what does he have the nerve to do? Give it up so he can stay on Earth with his true love, in this case the heroine Megara.

Still, "Hercules" is a fine film; a triumph of beauty, substance, comedy and music. Disney's greatest animated films have been dark stories with serious undertones (most notably, ones like "Pinocchio," "Bambi," "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Black Cauldron"), but silly, delightful comedies such as this one are no less effective (the best of them, perhaps, is "Dumbo"). In an era of great-looking cartoons with touches of trimmings.

1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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