HERCULES: Of Pleasing Daddy, Selling Merhcandise, and a Motown Chorus

Hercules (1997) – The 35th Walt Disney Animated Classic – Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker – Starring Tate Donovan, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Bobcat Goldthwait, Matt Frewer, Hal Holbrook, Paul Shaffer, Wayne Knight, Keith David, Frank Welker, Roger Bart, and Charlton Heston.

HERCULES is what happens when you push your formula one step too far.

Disney’s 35th Animated Classic comes near the end of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, and I think the film works as Litmus Test of sorts. If you love all things Disney, there’s enough here to make HERCULES a rather enjoyable film, while if you are not a fan of the Renaissance, my guess is that HERCULES is going to grate on your ears and eyeballs rather harshly. For me, I like the movie without embracing it fully. There’s an overwhelming sense of the ghost of other films’ ideas here than adds a sense of sameness to the film.

To be clear, there are parts of HERCULES that I love. The Motown-singing Greek chorus is fantastic and adds both an interesting and unique vibe to the movie. When these talented, toga-wearing ladies are singing, HERCULES sparkles with energy and cleverness. Unfortunately, they’re not the focus of the movie. While there semi-frequent appearances help the film, they’re in a secondary position to Hercules’ story, and that’s where the film comes up short.

Hercules (Tate Donovan does the talking, Roger Bart does the singing) is the son of Zeus who gets poisoned by two minions of Hades (James Woods) and loses his immortality. Hades wants to conquer the world or Olympus or Canada or something and the Fates tell him the only person who can stop him is Hercules and only on one specific night 18 years from that moment when the planets are in alignment and Hades can free the Titans.

Of course.

Your patience with that level of plot contrivance is just the kind of Litmus Test I was referring to up above. When Disney movies are working, it’s easy enough to accept this kind of set-up as the necessary foundation that allows for the enjoyable story to take place on top of it. When a film isn’t working, however, the foundation sticks up like an eye sore, and that’s what’s going on here. By telling us that Hercules is destined to save the world (or Olympus or Canada or whatever), the film renders it’s big training sequences kinda irrelevant. Hercules wants to be a hero in order to regain his godhood, which will allow him to live on Olympus with the other gods. (Plus, because it’s a Disney movie, he has the requisite Daddy Issues that plague many of our heroes and heroines.) Herc trains with Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), a satyr who earns his place in the world by training heroes.

Phil is in career crisis mode, however, as his past champions – Achilles and Odysseus (or maybe he calls him Ulysses – it’s not important) – have let him down. Hercules proves himself to Phil, however, and his training begins. These training sequences are incredibly common in the sword and sandal films, of course, and HERCULES does score some points by echoing those films.

It’s one of the few times in the movie where there’s something for older fans, because whatever else HERCULES is, it’s a Disney film that’s clearly aimed at a young crowd. There are some adult issues in the film, but for the most part, this movie is going for as young a crowd as any modern Disney movie. Characters have very little sense of grey; other than love interest Megara (Susan Egan), the HERCULES is populated with folks who are overblown in their attributes. Even the characters shapes and sizes are exaggerated, and Zeus’ big, smiling face is creepy in its intense, bug-eyed jocularity.

Hercules himself isn’t very likable, either. He’s a nice kid with big powers and a clumsy persona, but as soon as he finds out his human parents aren’t his real parents, he ditches them to go off and make his biological daddy proud and win his way back into Heaven. His instant decision to ditch his adopted parents makes him come off as a bit of a dick and his relationship with Phil just sort of happens.

Which isn’t to say there’s no enjoyment to be had watching Phil and Herc run through obvious routines, just that it’s the kind of enjoyment I get from a program when I fall asleep watching something else and then wake up and don’t have the energy to get off the couch to get the remote to get my TV to another channel.

James Woods is entertaining as Hades, but it’s a typical Disney Big Ugly villain, just as Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer are good as Panic and Pain, but they’re typical wacky henchmen.

The one shining star of HERCULES is Megara, the love interest with shady intentions. She made a deal with Hades to save her boyfriend and then that boyfriend ran off with someone else, leaving her without her lover and with a debt to pay to the God of the Underworld. Meg gets run through the standard plays-him/falls-in-love-with-him plot, but there’s some actual conflict and character development here.

At the end of it all, HERCULES is neither good nor bad. Or rather, it’s both good and bad, with some enjoyable moments tucked in among a lot of familiar territory. What brings me back to HERCULES is the enjoyable mix of the Motown sound with the Greek setting. Unfortunately, the songs are mostly forgettable and the Greek setting rarely stands out. Watching HERCULES isn’t a waste of my time – it’s just not the best way I can spend it.

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And hey, if you like all ages stories, check out my kid’s novel ADVENTURES OF THE FIVE: THE COMING OF FROST. Available now in both paperback and for the Kindle.

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