Hercules (1997)

D: John Musker, Ron Clements
S: Voices of: Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny De Vito

Given that The Hunchback of Notre Dame almost took Disney animation into something darker and more intensely dramatic, the follow up had to be a more resolutely conventional crowd-pleaser, and Hercules is just that. Despite the well advertised presence of satirist Gerald Scarfe as production designer, the film's breezy hipness and cheerful zaniness falls somewhere short of Tex Avery and never really attempts a moment of drama. It is a happily ridiculous rewrite of the classical mythology of Hercules, son of Zeus, here made mortal by the evil Hades (brilliantly voiced by James Woods) in an effort to prevent him intervening in the latter's attempt to take over Mount Olympus. He must learn the tricks of the trade from a world-weary Satyr (voiced by Danny De Vito) and deal with the elusive charms of feminity as he develops his body and mind to face the challenges of a true hero. It showcases typically spectacular Disney Renaissance animation (with some computer enhancement) and boasts good vocal performances from a range of actors. There's nothing so much wrong with it as the fact that there's nothing all that special about it either.

The recent Disney films have been a varied crop, and each has an individual identity which has defined them. Pocahontas has been the agreed disaster of the bunch with its cowardly rewriting of history and disappointingly unoriginal design, but Hercules does not really advance the cause or the form significantly following the ambitions of some of its predecessors, including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

It works, more or less, within its own frames of reference and a good time can be had by the attuned. The characters are lively and exciting, the visuals are impressively demented and the hijinks are generally interesting enough to hold it all together. The songs are a bit of a letdown, lacking any real punch despite the amusing soul music chorus motif. But when it's all over it leaves less of an impression upon the mind than its forerunners. It never moves from the confines of its slapstick universe or attempts to quicken the pulse with anything other than harmless amusement. That it works is less a testament to its quality than to the long-established Disney ability to churn out a movie with the proper ingredients for basic box-office and video sales. But the danger is that it might slip back to the era of production short-cuts and by-the-numbers scripting if the execs become too easily pleased by the workings of their marketing machine. Hercules does not represent quite that, thankfully, but one voice-casting decision more or less could well have tipped the scales.

But for the tots and tykes, it's all in fun, and most adult film viewers will also enjoy this movie. It has many points of specific interest for animation buffs, from the changing forms of representation of the human body to the advancement of computer animation which continues visibly to encroach upon classical techniques, but these are moot in the face of its basic appeal. It's harmless entertainment with strong characters and some moments of hip humour, designed to relax the mind and keep it parked in neutral. There have been worse, but there have also been better.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.