Movie Review – Hercules (1997)

Principal Cast : Tate Donovan, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Samantha Eggar, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Matt Frewer, Patrick Pinney, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Barrie, Paul Shaffer, Jim Cummings, Wayne Knight, Keith David, Charlton Heston, Frank Welker, Amanda Plummer, Carole Shelley, Paddi Edwards, and as The Muses: Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman, Vaneese Y Thomas.
Synopsis: The son of Zeus and Hera is stripped of his immortality as an infant and must become a true hero in order to reclaim it.

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Bright, breezy entertainment doesn’t come much bigger, brighter or entertain-y than Disney’s 1997 animated classic Hercules, based on the ancient Greek myths and brought to dazzling, showstopping life with the kind of pizzazz you’d imagine it might make a great stage show (hint hint). It came in the latter third of what would be considered the Disney Renaissance, in which the studio found a creative resurgence beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and concluding with 1999’s Tarzan, the height of the studio’s modern avalanche of box-office successes that would serve as a springboard to global domination. While Hercules could arguably be considered a “lesser” Renaissance entry, this in no way diminishes the sheer entertainment value of sticking the film onto a decent high definition screen and giving it a rewatch. Directors Clements and Musker, who delivered the Academy Award-wining Aladdin five years earlier, bring their usual flourishes and storytelling sensibility to what is, at its heart, a story about a boy looking for his place in the world, and turn a cheesy superhero flick into a raucous, diverting song-n-dance extravaganza that will have you tapping your toes and humming along instantly.

High atop Mt Olympus, Greek Gods Zeus and Hera (Rip Torn and Samantha Eggar respectively) have a new baby son, Hercules (Tate Donovan), who is stolen away to Earth by Panic (Matt Frewer) and Pain (Bobcat Goldthwaite), henchmen of the dastardly master of the Underworld, Hades (James Woods), who seeks control of Olympus for his own self satisfaction. With all but a sliver of his godly powers gone, Hercules grows up in our world with adoptive parents Amphitryon (Hal Holbrook) and Alcemene (Barbara Barrie), seeking to make sense of a world in which he is inordinately powerful but entirely useless; upon learning that he is the son of Zeus, Hercules is tasked with becoming “a true hero” to prove his worth a return to Mt Olympus. Hades, however, sets the bewitching Megara (Susan Eggar) to beguile him, so that his master plan of releasing long-dormant Titans upon the Earth can come to fruition. With Hercules’ fame and popularity only increasing thanks to the work of trainer Philoctetes, a satyr, Hades’ plan looks to be increasingly doomed to failure unless he can obtain the one thing known to weaken any mortal man – true love.

Filmmakers often state that making a Superman movie is fraught with danger because there’s nothing to really challenge him as a character. I would suggest those buffoons look closely at Hercules, a film in which the title character is, in fact, a progenitor of Superman by his sheer superhuman ability – heck, he even comes from above the clouds in the same way Kal El rocketed to Earth from Krypton – and recognise that just having incredibly physical abilities never negates the potential for interesting character development. The film’s writing team boasts a literal legion of names crafting the film’s dialogue and plotting – directors Clements and Musker among them – but where you’d think having a dozen or more people involved with the story might see the film feel too manufactured or piecemeal to make sense, the exact opposite is true. Hercules feels organic and well rounded as both a character and a story, with sprinkles of humour, pathos, delicious irony and spectacular animation forming the basis for the film’s success.

Apropos of his mythology, Hercules’ story here is a Quest Narrative, the objective being to “become a hero” and take to his fathers side back on Mt Olympus. Naturally, the film asks us to examine exactly what makes a hero, creating the expected (and somewhat cliched) arc that simply being super strong and brave doesn’t necessarily make people heroic. The jokes and songs along the way are merely icing on a deliciously frosty cake: pert of Hercules’ enduring charm is the film’s excellent voice cast, accompanied by a highly stylised animation style and a plethora of superb (underrated) songs. Nobody hums “Zero To Hero” much these days but it’s a hell of a catchy tune, whilst the euphoric “Go The Distance”, covered by Michael Bolton, has become a Disney thematic linchpin in the years since. Arguably, however, it’s the bizarre decision to include a quartet of Gospel singers as the film’s Muses (singing narrators, you ignorants), who provide a lot of the exposition and story points through foot-stomping song, that gives the film a lot of its zing. Not that you’d ever think to put American Gospel in the middle of Greek Mythology and have it work, but work it does, and how!

In terms of casting, Tate Donovan voices an enthusiastic, earnest but dull-witted leading man, alongside the rapacious Danny DeVito and the sublimely sarcastic Susan Eggar in giving Hercules a posse to work with. Rip Torn is at his augmented-bass best as Zeus, the God of Thunder, whilst 90’s perennials like Wayne Knight, Paul Shaffer (from David Letterman’s Late Show) and Bobcat Goldthwaite pop in as minor characters most kids today wouldn’t align with. Arguably the film’s chief asset, however, is James Woods as Hades, a smooth-talking villain on-par with Robin Williams’ Genie – sacrilege to say, perhaps, but I think his patter and banter throughout is just as amusing in that Woods way – and its he who provides the film’s legit heft as an outright classic. Whatever you might think of Woods in his personal life – and I think he’s a complete dickhead – his turn as Hades is definitely one for the ages, a perfect match of voice and character design that work in perfect concert.

With it’s bright and bubbly animation, introduction of limited yet still watchable digital effects (several of the film’s key action sequences and characters are augmented by computer graphic creations, similar to the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King) and a landslide of laughs, gags and catchy tunes, Hercules remains a vastly underrated entry into the Disney pantheon, especially its 90’s-era resurgence. Perhaps its because the film doesn’t have the “prestige” of a Pocahontas or Lion King or the memorable pop-culture resonance of The Little Mermaid or Aladdin going for it, but I found, and continue to find the film a hugely enjoyable romp with low expectations and plenty of great laughs. Often lowbrow, but always watchable, Hercules is a standout in many ways its contemporaries aren’t.

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