Do you remember Aladdin? Sure you do - fun Disney movie, critics loved it, big hit with the public, memorable comedy from famous movie stars. And it was notable in being a rare Disney film that was arguably a bigger hit with the younger male audience than the girl demographic that historically responded so well to princesses like Ariel, Belle, and Cinderella.
The House of Mouse never forgot Aladdin either, and if there's one thing they were obsessed with during the Disney Renaissance, it was trying to make lightning strike twice. So in 1997, they took the formula that had worked so well for the Arabian Nights and applied it to Greek mythology.
With varying degrees of success.
From a marketing standpoint, Hercules should have been a smash hit. The character was familiar (and had received a bit of a popularity boost from Sam Raimi's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys series), the tone was more family-friendly than the darker sensibilities of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the action-centric approach was "sure" to bring in boys to see a hero fight giant monsters, and the movie was stuffed with the sort of modern self-aware humor that audiences had responded so well to in Aladdin. What could go wrong?
Well mostly, the movie was kind of a mess. Apart from a surprisingly strong final act (and we'll get to that), everything in Hercules feels smaller, cheaper, and more rushed than any of the previous animated efforts of the era. It also causes borderline physical pain for anyone with a passing familiarity of Greek myths. Or Greek history. Or who knows the difference between ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The movie uses the Roman version instead of the Greek Heracles, but uses Greek names for all other mythological figures, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.
The most obvious issue with Hercules isn't totally damning to the film itself, but bears mentioning - this movie takes the "put recognizable aspects of mythology in a blender and press 'Puree'" approach of the Ray Harryhausen adventure movies and takes it to the next level, as well as making as many self-aware jokes at both the historical and mythological setting. And some of them are funny, but hearing phrases like "Who put the 'glad' in 'Gladiator'?" and "Someone call IX-I-I!" made me twitch violently. So while not a deal-breaker, the movie is almost offensively ignorant of its own source material much of the time, and when combined with the rapid-fire pun approach of previous Disney comedies, it wears rather thin.
But it's not like accuracy is tantamount to quality. To be fair, the film doesn't have a bad baseline concept. Begun in 1994 under the direction of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid), the movie, consciously or not, shares the same basic blueprint as Richard Donner's 1978 Superman: The Movie. Which makes sense as the easiest way to make a family-friendly movie about a character with such a sex-and-violence history as Hercules, and the movie make a game attempt at hitting the salient "big" story beats. Unfortunately, it seems in such a hurry to nail a handful of moments that it short-changes nearly everything else. The traditionally-central musical numbers are - with one exception - surprisingly mediocre in Hercules, in part because of the songs themselves, but also because of the framing device the film's narrative uses that bleeds over into the show tunes.
The concept of using a gospel choir-inspired Muse chorus was an interesting departure, and I applaud the film-makers' creativity, but it's wholly at odds with the tone and setting of the film (as I said, this movie really wants to be Aladdin). Alan Menken serves up a decent score, but lyricist David Zippel proved far less creative than Howard Ashman or Stephen Schwartz. Songs like "Go the Distance" serve as a good melodic theme for Herc as a character, but otherwise get uncharacteristically repetitive, and many others prove both forgettable and distanced from the characters and action by being set to montages sung by characters who have no stake in the story.
The single exception is "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)" which single-handedly kicks off the final act that nearly redeems the whole enterprise all on its own. Hercules has an impressive voice cast all-around - Tate Donovan takes what could have been a joke of a role (he's basically Superman in Sandals) and plays it earnestly to the hilt, making for a brilliant contrast between his Hercules and James Woods' ultra-modern and hilarious Hades. Danny DeVito goes full-90's cynical in the film's obvious parallel to Robin Williams' Genie, providing another interesting character dynamic, but the real star of the movie is Susan Egan's Megara. If you're a fan of anime or voice-acting in general, you've heard her before (notably in Porco Rosso, and Spirited Away), but here she plays what is easily the most fully-realized character in the entire film, casting an air of utter credibility over her disillusioned heroine while at the same time earning the dramatic undercurrents required for the role - and the film's finale - to work. Meg is completely aware of her own sexuality (the heavy implication of the film is that she's rather. . . experienced), leading to some surprisingly loaded banter but not undercutting her own vulnerability. And her musical number is where this all comes together marvelously, both as a reinforcement - and a playful skewering - of the traditional "Lovestruck Princess" number.
This is where the film really comes into its own for some genuinely effective character reveals, emotionally-charged action sequences, and a couple of seriously ballsy dramatic beats. Disney almost never kills off one of their lead characters, but both the death in this film and the resulting fallout are well-handled and totally earned. In fact, everything begins to come together so well in the last twenty minutes of the movie that one can almost forgive the rush to get there.
More than any other Disney film of this era, Hercules seems to be missing several chunks of its story. Unlike Pocahontas - which simply didn't have much story to tell - this movie has a rather enormous scope and several complex subplots that it tries to cram into 92 minutes, and the end result is that it feels like another twenty minutes or more ended up on the cutting room floor. There are too many meaningless montages, scenes that feel like they jump over important information - either with a passing mention of "Gosh, that was a nice romantic evening" or no explanation at all - and it makes for awkward pacing as well as a narrative that largely doesn't carry the weight that it should. Between this, the disappointing songs, and the stylistically-interesting but largely-unimpressive visuals, one can't help but miss the dramatic focus of Hunchback or even the scattershot approach of The Lion King.
For all that, Hercules manages to get its act together when it most counts, and while it was hardly the same level of visual or box-office landmark as the movies of the early-90's, or the bold dramatic experiment of its immediate predecessor, the movie serves as a strong example that the un-ironic "boy scout" hero model really is timeless. Even if the movie itself can be painfully dated.
The penultimate film of the Disney Renaissance began life as a straight-to-video short film called China Doll. But after a redirected production the resulting movie proved to be a swan song (for a time) for the musical that the period of rejuvenated animation had itself popularized. And a good send-off it was too.