This is the second in an ongoing series that will form a comprehensive review of the ‘official’ Walt Disney Animation Studios canon – from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through 2016’s Moana.
For reference, here is a complete list of the films in the Disney canon.
- Film: Hercules
- Year: 1997
- Director(s): John Musker and Ron Clements
- Length: 93 Minutes
- Source Material: Greek Mythology
- Official Budget: $85 Million
- Official Box Office: $252.7 Million
Written and directed by longtime Disney duo John Musker and Ron Clements (7 Disney features in total including Aladdin and The Little Mermaid), Hercules was first conceived in 1992; and after personnel and story changes, production began in 1993. Coming near the end of the Disney Renaissance (1989 – 1999), Hercules was considered a box office disappointment by Disney; being outperformed by predecessors Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The 35th Disney animated feature film, Hercules is a musical fantasy comedy based on Greek Mythology, and draws inspiration from ‘superhero-origin’ stories.
Essentially, this is the story of young Hercules and his pursuit to fulfill his Demi-god potential. Son of almighty Zeus, Ruler of the Gods and Mount Olympus; Hercules follows familiar storytelling paradigms. He yearns to join his immortal family on Mount Olympus by proving his worth as a hero down on Earth. All the while, Zeus’ envious brother Hades, the ruler of the Underworld, is plotting to overthrow Zeus – and Hercules becomes an obstacle for his ambitions.
Without the urgency of Musker and Clements’ earlier works (finding true love, escaping your lot in life), Hercules doesn’t measure up. Hercules is painted as an underdog, but he’s got a bit too much going for him to be convincing as a dark horse.
Worth noting is that questions linger far too long about Hercules’ love interest Meg; and whether her feelings for him override her own self-preservation as she is blackmailed to do Hades’ bidding. Viewers might feel their relationship is too contrived to buy into fully.
While Hercules suffers from ‘Clark Kent/Superman’ dolt syndrome; there are some great characters in this one. Danny DeVito is a stand-out as the grumpy side-kick Phil; a satyr with experience turning scrawny teenagers into heroes.
Mount Olympus is populated with a rich cast of Gods and Goddesses; but the most engaging characters come from the film’s Underworld. Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer are hilarious as henchman Pain and Panic; and James Woods steals every scene he is in as the fast-talking con-man Hades.
Hercules shares similarities to other Clement/Musker features, particularly Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog. For the most part, Hercules animators do good work, with some first-rate character design. A low point is the battle sequence between the hand-drawn Hercules and a computer-rendered Hydra. Meant to be a blockbuster fight scene; the CGI and 2D animation mash-up doesn’t work.
Songs for Hercules were composed by the legendary Alan Menken (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast). Drawing in part from gospel music, the most high-profile of the bunch is the Academy Award nominated ‘Go The Distance’, sung by Hercules early in the film. Without any truly show-stopping numbers, the soundtrack is so-so when compared to the best of the Disney pantheon. The closest to a sing-along track is Meg’s ‘I Won’t Say (I’m In Love)’, a Motown-stylized doo-wop ballad with a catchy chorus and strong production.
Even with the benefit of rich source material and strong voice work; Hercules is a weak addition to the Disney Renaissance period and ultimately is overshadowed by films with stronger stories.