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Hercules (1997)



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This Disney animated feature about the myth of Hercules takes a lighthearted, humorous approach, similar in tone to 1992's Aladdin. (Not surprisingly, this film and that had the same two directors, John Musker and Ron Clements.) The humor is slightly less reliant on current cultural phenomena, which means it may not date itself as much as Aladdin will, but it won't go down in the history books as one of Disney's highly respected, time-tested family classics, either.

Not to say Hercules isn't a truckload of fun. It is. This movie is packed with colorful characters, rousing action, and laughs of all kinds. Liberties are taken with the specifics of the myth (curiously necessitated by the same problem that plagued Disney's previous production, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, namely that their protagonists were killers in their real stories), but the story remains true to the spirit of the legends of heroes, while, at the same time, poking fun at the modern take on heroes.

On one level, Hercules is an enjoyable romp about the traditional mythic hero. born in a utopia that becomes lost to him, he must strive to gain it back. He errs in his approach, but in the end learns the fundamental truth of selflessness and is redeemed. This much is always a constant in any story of a true hero. The joy is in the journey.

On another level, Hercules knocks itself without compromising itself -- not an easy thing to do -- in more ways than one. It knocks itself as a hero story, as Hercules encounters a damsel in distress that doesn't want his help and a villain who refers to his master plan as a "hostile takeover bit." It also knocks itself as a Disney film, making fun of the shameless merchandising that capitalizes on the popularity of cultural icons such as the Disney films themselves.

The combination of solid adventure and funny parody generally dilute each other, but in Hercules they complement each other admirably.

As mentioned before, the characters are one of Hercules' main attractions. Hercules himself has an advantage over Disney's other shy yet aspiring heroes; he's already insanely strong but also a bit clumsy, which leads to some nice moments of physical comedy. The villain, Hades, is the comic highlight, voiced by (and resembling) James Woods, who steals all his scenes. The villain's henchmen are the fumbling Pain and Panic. The hero's sidekick is the spirited winged horse Pegasus (who whinneys rather than snores when asleep). Phil is a curmudgeon of a satyr, Hercules' teacher and guide, voiced by Danny DeVito, and has many of the film's best lines. Meg, the heroine, is the only (minor) weak link among the main characters. The scriptwriters were too preoccupied with making her a strong, politically correct character in spite of her role as a damsel in distress. Unlike most attempts to be politically correct, this one is not annoying, but with all the effort made making her independent and capable, none was left to make her a real character with emotions we understand. She goes through her character's requisite transformations somewhat mechanically. We're familiar with the formula, so we accept the character, but her motivation doesn't bear close inspection. Nonetheless, it's to the film's credit that a non-irritating modern spin could be put on the character without sacrificing her vital role in the story.

Compared to recent Disney features, the animation in Hercules looks a little primitive, yet it has its share of redeeming charm, due, in large part, to the slight change in the color palette, which resembles the ancient pictorial representations of the ancient myths more than it does Disney's usual. And, as with every Disney animated film since Beauty and the Beast, one outstanding scene demonstrates how stunning fine animation can be. In Hercules, this scene is an action-packed duel with a multi-headed beast. While it's impressive in its own right, one drawback is that it highlights the lesser quality of the rest of the animation. (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for instance, was unrelentingly innovative with its cinematography, yet that of Hercules is routine more often than not.)

The bottom line is that Disney has done better, several times, yet this is still a charming, enjoyable romp with much to offer.

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