‘Who put the ‘glad’ in gladiator?’
Straight off the back of the ‘second golden age’ of Disney films, Hercules followed Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1997. Although Hercules didn’t enjoy the same success as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, it actually received a lot of praise, including winning four awards, amongst them, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, both for Best Original Song for Go the Distance. The story is a lot less heavy than that of Hunchback, and even Pocahontas, which in comparison is quite a slow moving storyline. I particularly noticed in Hercules that the story has a very steady pace, and never seems to drag, or move too fast. This is partly thanks to the five Muses, gospel singers singing soulful songs which help certain parts of the story to progress quickly, in order for the rest of the film to carry on.
Poor Hercules is snatched from his parents as a baby so that Hades’ henchmen Pain and Panic can feed him a potion which will obliterate his God-like strength. Of course, this is so that Hades can take over the cosmos without anyone trying to stop him. When they are disturbed by who will become Herc’s adoptive parents, they drop the bottle containing the potion, and a single drop falls to the ground, meaning that our hero still has a trace of his God-like powers within him.
After going throughout his young life and into adulthood feeling a lot different to the rest of his town, he decides that he needs to leave his adoptive parents and find out where he came from. With a medal displaying the symbol of the Gods which was around his neck when he was found, he makes his way to Mount Olympus, where he encounters his father, Zeus. Zeus informs Hercules that he must become a true hero before he can retain his place as a God, and tells him to find Philoctetes (Phil), who will train him. After being trained, Hercules encounters Megara, a damsel in distress. Little does he know that she is working for Hades, the lord of the Underworld. Hades sends Megara to con Hercules into thinking that there are two children trapped under a huge rock in a gorge, and when he rushes to rescue them, he is confronted by a 3 headed Hydra. After numerous attempts, the Hydra is defeated, to Hades’ surprise and dismay.
A furious Hades then sends Megara to find out Hercules’ weakness. Megara falls in love with Herc, unfortunately displaying to Hades that she is his weakness. At this point, Phil overhears Hades and Megara talking, and realises that they are working as a team. He then tells Hercules of the scheme, but his words fall on deaf ears, as Hercules is in turn, in love with Megara. After Herc delivering a fairly brutal slap around Phil’s face, Phil leaves, understandably. Hercules is then greeted by Hades, who does not have much time left to complete his takeover. Hades reveals that he has Megara held hostage, and cons Hercules into giving up his powers to save her. Our vile villain then delivers another blow to Hercules, informing him that Megara had been working for him the whole time…
The style of Hercules differs very much from the traditional Disney animated features; however, it is a refreshing change. The use of colour in Hercules is noticeably different in comparison to its predecessors. At the start of the film we are presented with a never-ending sky at Mount Olympus, which includes eye-popping shades of pink, and many swirling patterns in the clouds and the sky. This is in total contrast to the Underworld, which houses very intricate details and conveys a wonderfully morbid atmosphere. It seems that Hercules is a lot more experimental in styling compared to the traditional Disney formula which created classics such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Much of this is due to the work of British artist Gerald Scarfe, as it was his graphic style that influenced the whole film, with the animators working closely with him to maintain his unique style. It is clear when looking at Scarfe’s concept art that the animators based their final designs heavily on his original drawings, especially the character of Hades.
Hercules, played by Tate Donovan, is very much a ‘gentle giant’. He comes across as slightly naive and vulnerable, a distinct difference to the rest of the characters, however he still retains his own subtle comedy. Megara’s slim ‘where does she put her internal organs?’ design works well in contrast with her sharp facial features and sassy attitude (played perfectly by Susan Egan). Her styling is very much like that of a Greek column, tall and thin. Her colouring is a questionable choice, with purpleish brown hair to match her dress, however, it never seems out of place or unusual. Hades, played by James Woods, is possibly the most entertaining villain to come out of the Disney studios, ever. His laid back mannerisms and blue flaming hair make him ultra cool, and he becomes even funnier when he gets exasperated and his hair turns fiery oranges and reds. Hades’ henchmen, Pain and Panic, are two small, strange looking creatures, one fat and purple, the other thin and turquoise. Their humour is very childlike compared to that of Hades, who delivers a lot of one -liners which would only be understood by adults.
It is plain to see that Phil’s design was inspired by Danny DeVito’s form, short and rounded; though it fits the character well, especially when the bulk of the characters are all rather tall. His sceptical manner is quite hilarious, opening up to a lot of one liners and physical comedy. Both Danny DeVito and James Woods provide comedic performances which are almost on par with Robin William’s Genie in Aladdin. The Muses are all styled similarly to Megara, tall and thin, with the exception of one, and they all wear long flowing dresses which also give the impression of a Greek column. Pegasus is the only character that does not seem to have been given the Scarfe treatment, although as a horse he is already naturally tall and thin, therefore fits in completely with the other characters.
The choice to use CGI for the Hydra which Hercules battles is quite impressive considering that the rest of the film is hand-drawn; it never distracts the viewer from the action, it just works. It also allowed the animators to duplicate the heads many times without having to drawn them repeatedly. CGI is also used for parts of the clouds, when they are seen breaking apart and reforming effortlessly.
The songs in this film are superb, even though they, like the styling, are rather removed from what we expect from Disney. The Muses are soulful gospel singers, telling the story through song, and the songs belonging to the characters such as Megara’s ‘I Won’t Say I’m in Love’ and Hercules’ ‘Go the Distance’ are just as strong as the songs in many Disney films before, also written by Alan Menken.
There is much more I could write about this film, but the best thing I can suggest is for you to watch it yourself! It is definitely far too underrated, losing out to previous Disney films possibly because of its decidedly un-Disney styling, making it less familiar to die-hard fans.
I reviewed this film from the DVD release, which has sadly only ever been released as one disc. It does have a ‘Making Of’ short film, some Greek history feature, an Art Attack feature on how to make a Greek Urn, (I skipped this one), and the unavoidable sing-along section which includes a whopping one song. Hopefully an eventual Blu-ray release will see this film get some well deserved special features.
I give this movie 4 Tinks.