..

HERCULES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Tate Donovan, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan
Directors:  John Musker, Ron Clements
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  Music Video, Featurette
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  November 9, 1999

Film ***1/2

James Woods as Hades, the god of the underworld.  Have you ever heard of more inspired casting than that?

And casting is just the beginning for Disney’s first animated foray into classical mythology, Hercules.  And you didn’t expect it to be Bullfinch, did you?  The pomposity often associated with the classics is stripped right away, as narration by none other than Charlton Heston is interrupted by the gospel singing muses, who immediately inject the movie with a sense of liveliness and fun that it never loses.

Hercules, the infant son of Zeus and Hera, is kidnapped and brought to earth by the evil Hades, who has learned from the fates that only this boy could thwart his plan to take over Mt. Olympus.  His intention is to turn Hercules into a mortal and kill him, but fortunately for the story, though he strips young Herc of his immortality, he fails to take away his legendary strength. 

Hercules grows up to learn his identity, though, and the fact that if he wants to return to his state as a god and his real family on Olympus, he must prove himself a real hero.  That won’t be easy, even with his remarkable physical abilities.  Fortunately, he finds allies in the winged stallion Pegasus and a satyr named Phil who happens to be in the business of training heroes (think Mickey from the Rocky movies and you’ve just about pegged Phil).  Phil too, is looking for a chance to redeem himself from past failures, including the training of Achilles (“Nice work, Phil!  Missed a spot!”)

But Hercules soon learns than being a hero is more than being strong, good, and victorious in battle.  Even at the height of his popularity in Thebes, “The Big Olive”, he still is searching for the chance to prove himself worthy.  And when it comes down to the final, spectacular battle with Hades, Herc finally learns that being a hero is something anyone can achieve, regardless of strength or stamina.  Indeed, it’s not the size of the person, but the size of the heart.

Now, on to the goods…Hercules is the funniest animated offering from Disney since Aladdin.  And I do mean funny.  There’s no end to the anachronistic jokes and word plays, from the trapped children who call out, “Call IX-I-I!” to James Woods’ endless wisecracking about the underworld (“It’s dark, it’s dreary, it’s full of dead people, but hey, what’re you gonna do, huh?”) to the never ending display of pure slapstick, always made bigger and better by the freedom of animations.  And this film also boasts some of the best Disney music in recent memory, with a lively gospel soundtrack that will likely make you clap along in your own living room.

I wouldn’t recommend this film for anyone looking for a serious course in Greek mythology…the animators, writers, and actors are having far too much fun to be weighted down with conventions like that.  This is a purely spirited, funny, colorful, and enjoyable romp through the classics.  They don’t take the subject too seriously, and neither should you.  Like when Hercules leaves the theatre after watching the play Oedipus Rex… “Gee, I thought I had problems!”

Video ****

Hercules is as colorful an animated film as you can hope for, and Disney did a beautiful job with this THX certified transfer.  By telling a tale of mythical beings and imaginary places, the animators weren’t constrained to realistic colors, and instead, seemed to adopt the philosophy of the more, the brighter, the better.  This is a glorious looking film, with an almost all out assault of colors, all of which are perfectly rendered and contained.  Images are sharp and clear, and there’s never any instance of noticeable grain, even in the darker scenes.  

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is lively and dynamic, perfect for a film that rarely gets quiet and boasts tremendous gospel music for a film score.  There are plenty of action scenes that use the rear channels effectively, and the subwoofer gets work from them and from the raucous music.  All in all, one of the better listening experiences to go with an animated film!

Features **

The disc contains a “Making Of” featurette featuring interviews with the cast and crew, and though unlisted on the box, there’s also a music video from Ricky Martin.

Summary:

Hercules is pure, unabashed fun.  This film may never be considered the staple of animation status that other Disney classics have acquired, but as long as there are audiences willing to laugh, cheer, and thrill to its whimsical spectacle, I’m betting it’s a movie that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.