Herc Hits Hard, Except When he Misses
Originally Released: 1997
What is there to say about Hercules? Here is an entry that is as uneven as they come. The production team at Disney decided to bring the ages-old tale to a more modern place by turning Hercules into a 1990’s sports icon, complete with his own endorsements and shoe contracts. With the success of Aladdin, it was natural for Disney to want to dive in headfirst in the contemporary animated comedy, and Hercules took this concept to a new level. Whereas most of the modern jokes in Aladdin were limited to the Genie, in Hercules, the entire ancient greek population was aware of modern conventions. I believe this is where many of the gags break down. There is an inconsistency in tone and setting that is hard to reconcile.
Despite the inconsistencies, some things I thought were done particularly well. For example, I did laugh at the Herculade commercial and gag. While the soft drink reference in the picture above would be more consistent with the Mountain Dew commercials in the 90’s than Gatorade (watch this example to see what I mean – clearly all true heroes keep their mouth at least 3 inches away from the drink container), it did capture the essence of the soda and sports drink marketing of the time.
Another moment is when Hercules is posing for the pottery artist. Not only is this a nod to the real mythology where Hercules is often depicted wearing a lion skin, It also is also notable that Andreas Dejas was the animator for both Hercules and Scar in The Lion King. Additionally, we see that Zazu’s comments about throw rugs were quite accurate!
I enjoyed some of the casting choices as well. To me, the real stars of the film are James Woods as Hades and Susan Egan as Megara. James Woods brought a new dimension to the disney villain by being a fast-talking, sleazy salesman type with a real sense of humor. Susan Egan was the first Belle on Disney’s Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, so getting her to transition over to the real deal must have been a very simple and natural choice (it’s too bad she did not get more musical numbers, though! That voice!) I also liked the inclusion of Danny DeVito as Phil.
Another nice little touch was the use of Charlton Heston for the initial narration. I didn’t realize it was him at first, but when I saw his name on the credits, I thought it was a great nod to a great actor (it was almost as good as this tribute to Heston’s greatness), even if the muses didn’t appreciate his approach to narration.
Which brings me to some things I didn’t appreciate as much. I mentioned inconsistencies before, and to me, the idea of Gospel singers (which is Christian through and through) singing about false pagan gods and calling it “the Gospel Truth” is just too much to reconcile. Even though the songs can be quite catchy and fun, they feel like they don’t belong in the film. So this leaves Hercules trying to somehow mesh 1990’s America, 1000 B.C. Ancient Greece, ancient polytheistic beliefs, and southern Christian gospel music into a harmonious, tidy package. That is a hard thing to do, and I don’t think they pulled it off.
In addition to this, some of the story ideas and more blatant jokes fell kind of flat to me. I don’t buy into Hercules being a nobody or outsider as a kid. Plus, I doubt that anybody would have the guts to call someone with the ability to knock down giant pillars “Jerkules,” even if they were thinking it on the inside. Beyond story miss steps, some of the modern references like Marilyn Monroe and the American Express card also make little sense to me.
Lastly, the scene that Hercules argues with Phil and makes him mad was so similar to the scene where Aladdin argues with Genie and makes him mad that I thought I was having a deja vu moment. Sadly, the dreaded “formula” can be found popping up in moments of Hercules.
So overall, does Hercules succeed? Interestingly, it is in the quieter and subtler moments and references that Herc and his gang reaches the highest heights, while some bigger, louder moments cause the film to fall back down to earth.