Hercules (1997)

2010 #99
Ron Clements & John Musker | 89 mins | TV (HD) | U / G

Hercules is the first post-me Disney; the point where, for whatever reason, I stopped watching their output. But, of course, Disneys — good Disneys, at any rate — are suited to every age group.

To not do myself too much of a disservice, I remember at the time being very unimpressed with how Hercules looked in trailers. I felt the animation looked far too Modern — all those sharp lines and chunky styles — ugh. Now, in the wake of so many computer-based animated efforts (be it 3D or Flash-based), it looks positively hand-drawn and traditional. And it looks great in HD.

Directors Clements and Musker also helmed Basil the Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog — an extraordinary run with few duds (says he who hasn’t seen the last two, I hasten to point out), which is unmatched in at least the modern Disney era (unless you start counting Pixar). Hercules isn’t their best effort, but it stands up pretty well.

Firstly, there’s a good cast: Rip Torn’s Zeus is fun, Danny DeVito’s hero-trainer Phil a decent version of a Disney archetype, James Woods’ Hades a solid villain. Even the villain’s comedy sidekicks, who by all rights should be intensely irritating, are entertaining. Pegasus, meanwhile, is worthy of Disney’s long tradition of animal-sidekicks-with-no-dialogue-who-can-still-convey-their-thoughts-and-feelings-perfectly (I feel this tradition needs a snappier name.) Love interest Meg, meanwhile, starts out intensely irritating but is gradually redeemed. Good work, I say to the film’s twenty credited writers.

In spite of that — and, indeed, in spite of what one might expect — the tale is told with surprising faithfulness. There’s still a healthy dose of anachronistic content to liven up the humour though. In fact, the sequences with Hercules’ adoring fans and merchandising empire ring even more true in this Twilight-obsessed world than they did 13 years ago. It’s one of the scarier Disneys, I think — not because it brings Twilight to mind (though I appreciate that’s enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine), but because of all the giant monsters and Hell-ish stuff. But maybe I’m just being over-sensitive.

Where the quality falls down slightly is the music. It suffers from songs that are at best unmemorable and at worst irritating. The gospel-styled Greek Chorus grew on me, but started out singing dreadful dialogue — I know songs don’t have to rhyme, but really, theirs should have — while Hercule’s big song is like a wimpy first draft of Mulan’s I’ll Make a Man Out of You (though even mentioning it in the same sentence as that number makes it sound better than it is). Only love interest Meg gets a passable song, not that I could remember it within hours of watching the film. Maybe it’s not all that bad really, but when early-’90s Disneys could produce several unforgettable tunes per film, it feels like a weak album from a band you usually enjoy.

Hercules isn’t up there with Disney’s best late ’80s/early ’90s output. I’m certain this isn’t just nostalgia talking — it’s not just my childhood memories that make the likes of Aladdin, The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast superior — but it was better than I expected and, though flawed, has a lot to commend it too.

4 out of 5

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