Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Walt Disney, part ΔΔΔΔΔI: You swoon, you sigh, why deny it, uh-oh


HERCULES

1997
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Written by Donald McEnery, Bob Shaw, Irene Mecchi, Ron Clements, and John Musker, et al

Spoilers: severe


Now comes Walt Disney's 35th "canonical" animated feature, and directors Ron Clements and John Musker's fourth, Herculeswhich, deprived of any context, you would need to call "Disney's Hercules," for there are many films bearing that Greek demigod's name*and Disney's Hercules has been something I've had to wrestle with ever since it was released in the summer of 1997.  I have, to be clear, always loved it, but this love has been complicated by my repulsion from it.  I loved it much less, anyway, when I was fifteen seeing it for the first time, scandalized at the nonsense it makes of mythology and history in ways, for example, Aladdin perhaps should have prepared me for.  But while they've never taught much medieval Islamic history in American schools, it's the rare American kid of fifteen (or five) who doesn't know enough about ancient Greece to come to the conclusion they somehow know more about it than the makers of Hercules did.

As a result, it can feel like just about the most recklessly cavalier thing Disney's ever done with a source material.  Then again, what "source material"?  That should be kept in mind: "Greek religion" and "Greek literature" are intertwined phenomena that lived and breathed and were treated with varying degrees of seriousness by many, many different people for some 2000 years, and they're subjects, furthermore, about which we know only a glimmer of today.  In the works that have survived we can often assume the artists who used Greek myth must have disagreed with how their predecessors had used it.  In some cases we don't have to assume, because we know enough about an individual to know that they thought their predecessors (and their peers) sucked.  According to Homer, Hercules was dead; so somebody (at least, scholars suspect) changed The Odyssey to "fix" that.  And this is the same culture, mind you, that even with a centralized religion, couldn't settle on one story about Jesus.  For all we know there's some lost 1st century A.D. author, who thought contemporary Greek literature could use a bit more godly doings than it was typically getting up to, but still enjoyed the romances with girls that were so innovative at the time, plus they'd recently heard about this "Satan" guy, and so they told the story of Hercules exactly the same way Clements and Musker did two millennia laterminus, presumably, the jokes about Air Jordans.


Probably
not, but Hercules is only one more example of reimagining concepts that, without fail, descend to us reimagined a thousand times already, and though it's not exactly reverent, what, do you worship Hercules?  What we wind up with isn't the standard Hercules treatment, at least not much, but the spine of the plot is more-or-less the Gigantomachy (they call them Titans, but they mean Giants), and the rest can kind of look like other Herculean myths, though, admittedly, it looks even more like the legend of Orpheus, and looks the most like the legend of Kal-El of Krypton, Clark Kent of Earth.  But Kal-El of Krypton already looks like Hercules, so 'round we goand Clements and Musker have owned that influence, noting that when they chose Hercules out of the slim field of options which Jeffrey Katzenberg had curated for his superstar directors, it was because it reminded them of superheroes, doubtless Superman, and, I'd expect, Marvel's version of Thor.  (Not that Hercules was what they'd originally wanted: Clements and Musker, having delivered two of Disney's most celebrated films, asked Katzenberg again if they could do their long-gestating passion project, Treasure Island in space.  He said no again, and I shall again leave Treasure Planet for its proper time.)  A Greek myth movie had been simmering for a while: I don't know how much any of the various parallel projects that dissolved in mid-development informed Hercules (there was an Odyssey; there was, indeed, an Orpheus, pursued for some time by WDFA's other two directorial superstars, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, before they were assigned The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Joe Haidar is still credited with "an idea," though his idea, about Hercules intervening in the Trojan War, was not the idea that Clements and Musker and their co-screenwriters and storypeople went with.

Their Hercules goes like this: at some point during the first two millennia B.C. (yes, it really is that nebulous), there was born to Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggars) a son, whom they called Hercules in honor of his father's wife with no irony whatsoever attached to that fact (this is Josh Keaton as a teen, and Tate Donovan as a young adult).  This displeases Zeus's brother, Hades (James Woods)so now it looks like The Lion Kingfor Hades, consigned to rule the dreary land of the dead, plots to take the throne by unleashing the Olympians' ancient adversaries, the Titans, and the way the prophecy about that works is that he's got to wait until the planets are just right; by that time Hercules will be grown, and if Hercules challenges him, Hades is predestined to lose his war.  Hades's solution is to take Hercules out of the equation now, and tasks his semi-competent hench-creatures, minor deities Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), with kidnapping Hercules and removing his godhood via a magic potion.  They almost manage it, but are interrupted by a couple of interloping humans before the godling has swallowed the last drop, so while they've trapped him in a mortal coil, his godly strength remains, as they discover when they make a go at outright killing him in the form of two serpents, only to find that even the infant Hercules is more than their match.


Those humans raise this strange foundling, whose accoutrements indicate that he somehow belongs to the gods, but as the years pass and the adolescent makes himself a menace with his uncontrolled power, Hercules quests for the full truth.  He finds it quickly, but there's a catch: he cannot return to Olympus as a mortal, and the only way to regain his godhood is by becoming a true hero.  His father reunites him with his winged stallion, Pegasus (Frank Welker), and sends him to Philoctetes the Satyr (Danny DeVito), the trainer of heroes.  He grows into his prodigious strength, and when he reappears in the territory of the bustling port of Thebes to right wrongs and earn his place in heaven, the very first mortal he saves, Megara (Susan Egan), turns outunbeknownst to himto be another thrall of Hades.  But now Hades knows Hercules is not dead, and he will stop at nothing to eliminate the only being in the cosmos who can defeat him.  Yet for all the monsters he throws at the up-and-coming hero, the only thing that turns out to work is Meg herself.

Okay, let's get it out of our systems.  I mean, there's the very obvious things: Hercules's archenemy is usually Hera, who tended to hate her husband's bastard offspring, but, like Xenophanes before them, Disney was uncomfortable with the boundless moral shittiness of Greek mythology, and so Clements and Musker took the radical step of villainizing Hades, whom no tradition I know makes him his brother's enemy, nor makes him prone to bargaining for souls, which comes from a rather later, rather different underworld belief.  Of course any halfway-faithful sequel would have been bad news for Meg, though a sexually-aggressive femme fatale semi-villain in a Disney film is virtually as radical as evil Hades.


Then there's the inordinate number of less obvious fucks that weren't given, like how Thebes is actually inland, or how Algos (Pain) and Phobos (Panic) aren't a dyad (nor associated with Hades); meanwhile, there are the things that, like Hades's diabolical recasting, have to be acknowledged as either an intelligent gloss or a happy accident, like the blurring of the feminine trinity of the Moirai, who spin and cut the thread of fate, with the feminine trinity of the Graeae, a trio of gross old crones (here pretty much just corpses), who are memorable mainly for having but the one eye between them.  But at a bedrock level, it's just wrong: I've never actually seen anyone mention this, so perhaps this is even an original observation, but Hercules's heroic morality could scarcely be wronger; when Hercules expresses frustration to his father that his legendary efforts have failed to restore his rightful godhood, Zeus responds, "being famous isn't the same as being a true hero."  But it is.  That's what "kleos" means.  It means fame!

But I promised myself I wouldn't be tedious (oops), and leaving any preciousness about myth or history aside, this is solid superheroic plotting.  (And a decent go at a Jeffrey Katzenberg biopic!  I kid.)  But what that plot, or any of my nitpicky observations, don't expressly make clear is that Hercules is a wacky-as-fuck cartoon comedy, and Hercules would give you the raspberry for being a nerd.  It starts out with exactly such a statement of purpose, interrupting a stentorian narrator (Charlton Heston!) with something a bit more... well, we'll talk about the music later.  Given its makers, perhaps it was natural just how aggressive its "post-Aladdin" posture is.  Hercules could be accused of existing entirely to make corny, dumb jokes, and while I don't think that's true, it's not so obviously untrue I don't have to make a case for an alternative.


It does, at least, have variety, pulling from half a dozen different subgenres of comedy that, astoundingly, Hercules manages to make more-or-less cohere.  At any given moment in its 93 minutes, we're dealing with 40s Warners or Tex Avery-style visual anarchism, gentler 40s Disney-style pantomime, 90s celebrity voice shtick, 30s screwball romantic comedy, 90s contemporary satire, 90s contemporary kid's movie quipping like "maybe we should call him Jerkules," and, surprisingly enough I'm almost sure one of them must not have been noticed by the higher-ups, a pretty steady drip of sex jokes.  (There's the running gag about Philoctetes's lecheryhe's introduced during an incompetent attempt at raping some nymphs, merging with that "40s Warners" current in a Pepe Le Pew routine, done as Disney-style pantomimethough the funnier part, there, is virginal Hercules's disgusted disappointment.  The joke I found genuinely shocking, however, was Hercules's confrontation with the centaur (Jim Cummings)who wants to rape Meg, and having to describe Disney cartoon characters as rapists twice in the same paragraph means that maybe this movie has a solid grasp of Greek myth after alland here Hercules takes a beat to look beneath the man-beast's offscreen undercarriage to confirm that the proper form of address is, indeed, "sir," thereby requiring that every adult in the audience now visualize the giant, blue, and likely-tumescent horse cock that Hercules is inspecting.  It could be my favorite joke in any Disney movie, now that I think about it.)

That's all to the good, even if I expect I experience more warm affection than uncontrollable laughter at, say, the cartooniest joke in the film, the "game of horseshoes" gag that Hercules's savage beating of the centaur occasions, but this is often some madcap, anything-goes stuff, very prone to snappy patter and snappier pictorial humor.  That necessarily includes a certain form of comedy that I haven't yet mentioned, though "horseshoes" might suggest it (if it doesn't, I mentioned "Air Jordans"), and that's some very forceful anachronism.  The good news is that it's not as interested in references as it could be (though it has more than enough: possibly the ugliest joke in the movie involves Meg sarcastically referring to Pain and Panic, in animal disguises, as "rodents looking for a theme park," which makes me choke down vomit even if it's not as bad as The Lion King's Disney park reference).


But I don't know; anachronism can suit Hercules's overarching looseness.  What torments me is the anachronism within the anachronism.  We have to accept, for breeziness's sake, that this is never going to anchor itself to anything remotely specificAladdin is more disciplined and Aladdin was still happy to play in the vaguest neverwhenand ancient Greeks, who weren't that much better about this, had a hard time with anachronism themselves, which is why they invented the word.  So there's no use bitching about Ionic columns even if it is fair to bitch about Panic slurping soda out of an undeniably-plastic big gulp shaped like one.  But "Call IX-I-I!" is disastrous, and it's inestimably worse when you remember that Roman numerals are Roman.**  And I could grind my teeth out of my gums to hear Phil discuss his previous unsatisfactory heroes, nearly all of whom either post-date Hercules or actually hung out with him, for this is where it feels upsettingly cavalier, rather than productively imaginative, and in ways I find hard to let slide on the basis of actually being funny, or on the assumption that these mythological figures spewing "hip" dialogue are simply being translated by way of some highly-idiomatic English.  Or, to a notable degree, Yiddish.

But I can do that with most of it: the Clements and Musker touch is real, and of Disney's handful of pure comedies, I can't quite bring myself to think of Hercules as one of them.  I realize this isn't the consensus on Hercules, but I think it's almost as much of a tonal miracle as Aladdin, though getting there by opposite means: Aladdin kept almost all its tone-breaking material to a single character, whose power gave him an excuse to be essentially metafictional; Hercules just makes its zaniness a near-constant thing from practically every corner, so you either roll with it or you don't.  But "near-constant" leaves a surprising amount of room to operate, and I think I've finally cracked what it is about Hercules that allows it to operate at all, and the shortest version is that Clements and Musker have the rarest of skills when it comes to weaving comedy into a drama you're supposed to take seriously: knowing when to shut up.


That is, they know precisely how to throttle back, and how to throttle back up, without even being that noticeable about it.  Consider that Hercules has, in fact, two dramatic climaxes, the first involving the Olympian stakes of Hades's great game; there's a tangible third-act shift that doesn't banish all humor, but the cosmic scale of the visuals becomes the more overwhelming part of the mix, and even when the film indulges in full-on womp-womps ("guys, Olympus is that way"), they're either in service to Hades as a now-invincible figure who's never actually been weak, or they're about how darkness has already triumphed.  That's Clements and Musker's deftness: the jokes get trivializing again only after Hercules escapes Hades's power-draining trick via his girlfriend's sacrifice, because that was the climax; with Hercules's arrival, Hades's defeat is foreordained (why, it's downright Sophoclean), and if it's a foregone conclusion anyway, why not get silly with it?  Then it shifts back, with even more impressive agility: those laughs were, in a sense, false relief, because it gets dark and mythic all over againdarker, more mythic; Hercules is so implacably furious that his contest with Cerberus doesn't even need to be shown, just him busting down the gates of hell on the back of his tamed monsterbut fury can be manipulated, and once Hades has again gained the advantage on the theoretically-lower (but more deeply-felt) set of stakes involving Meg's soul, there's not really a joke-as-such again until after that drama has concluded, with Hercules fishing her out of Lethe and going beyond life and death.  (This being what we're invited to understand amidst some tense, mystical cross-cutting against the Fates and their thread.)  In each case, silliness is good's triumph, a humiliation added to Hades's defeat and then destruction.  (And we ought appreciate any Disney villain's deliberate destruction by a Disney hero.)  And in truth, Hercules has three climaxes, though the last one is just a choice, rather than a war in heaven or an unusually-successful example of a Greek hero's catabasiswhich is a bit more Christian, really, but hey, what is Christianity, but a Greek mythology?

I regret having to barf up what almost amounts to frame-by-frame analysis of the whole ending, but there's something special about Clements and Musker, and Hercules might be the movie least-suited to make the argument to anyone else but best-suited to explain it to myself.  After all, it's their least-beloved work of the Disney Renaissance (generally considered a mid-tier entry, it did nothing to halt the Pocahontas trendline of diminishing box office); but maybe that makes it easier to reverse-engineer what they did.  It's worth the effort, anyway, of figuring out why Clements and Musker are differentback-to-back watches of Hercules and Hunchback really do show how thoughtful they can be about how, why, and whether comedy works, rather than just brusquely plugging comedy in, which is often the Disney way.  It surely helps that, as in Aladdin, they saw comedy as an opportunity rather than an obligation.


But maybe it helps just as much to have one of Disney's best ensembles, and we can start with addressing a deficit and throwing some love Donovan's wayor Keaton and Donovan, the latter managing such continuity with Keaton that I spent most of my life not knowing there was a "teen Hercules"as, between the two of them, they offer some easy-to-overlook work on behalf of a naive, callow, sometimes-selfish, but fundamentally-good hero, who's admittedly a somewhat basic-ass hero, but they manage a beautiful sincerity about it.  (It's good enough to undergird shots where Hercules doesn't even have dialogue, and it's Andreas Deja, Randy Haycock, and their assistant animators doing the work: I'll offer that Hercules's Ma and Pa Kent scenes are heartbreakingly exquisite.)  Goldthwait and Frewer are doing fine being themselves; Danny DeVito isn't exactly just "being Danny DeVito," but he is "Danny DeVito sort of being Burgess Meredith," and doing well with Phil's thin veneer of crabby cynicism.  Torn is so blatantly perfect as "Zeus as an oblivious loudmouth" that the casting almost feels unworthy of praise, even though that's what celebrity voice casting's for.  The stand-outs really stand-out, though: Egan is high on my list of Disney's best female leads, all the more remarkably because she's not even the protagonist, nor always working with the best material (she gets the "hippest" of Hercules's "hip" dialogue).  But it's admirable range for Browaday's Belle, and she does wonders situating Megara's "jaded screwball dame" as something bizarrely well-fitted to her environment, a defense against an unrelentingly masculine and hostile world, where one is at constant risk of being enslaved by gods, raped by centaurs, or betrayed by anyone you were stupid enough not to push away, the spaces she's putting between her spikes already presaging a more sympathetic character long before we actually get a sad backstory spelled out.

And there's Woods, who joins Robin Williams and Jeremy Irons amongst the irreplaceable celebrity castings in Disney history (then you learn he was something like Disney's eighth choice!), whose performance fundamentally reshaped the concept.  He might be unique as a Disney comic villain who's funnyI could almost stop therebut who remains a consummate threat, and that you only forget is frightening because he's lulled you into a false sense of security.  The idea sounds totally dysfunctional: he's playing Hades as a Hollywood dealmaker (he is the principal, if not sole, source of Yiddishisms), and simultaneously, as intimated, the Christian Devil.***  But it's far more than just "functional," full of slimy Woodsian fast-talking that can descend, in an instant, into petulant rages, and petulant rages that just as rapidly transmute back into calm, collected cool, with a sense that Hades is barely aware he ever lost his composure in the first place.  What it is, is highly-animated, and a challenge to supervisor Nik Ranieri to keep up, which he does marvelously, in a seamless joint operation between Ranieri's team and the effects animators tasked with bringing Woods's sound-booth explosions to life in the form of Hades's mercurial crown of low blue flame suddenly erupting into volcanic pyrotechnics.  Which is a savvy enough way to treat a chthonic god, whom I don't believe was associated with vulcanism (that was his nephew's gig), but seems like he should've been.


Hades is a special case of Hercules's animation and design, but not that special: this is a fabulous looking movie and boasts fully three of my favorite "major" character designs in Disney's history.  Hades might not even be my very favorite here, and if we start adding minor characters it really stacks up.  The baseline was set by one of the oddest outside artists Disney ever hired in Gerald Scarfe, of Pink Floyd's The Wall fame, which I don't suppose you'd guess, but once you see it you can't unsee it, especially in Pain and Panic and the even-more-freakish tertiary humans.  Inspired by Scarfe's concept art and his apparent love of pointiness, along with Greek art (particularly black-figure pottery, the Disney cartoon version of which gets heavily showcased in numerous interstitials), we get one of the craziest collections of curves and angles in Disney animation, run through the Disney process so that you've got defiantly un-Disney designs ramped up to Disney Renaissance levels of smooth fluidity.

Hence Hades, but also hence the film's other champion, Meg, an outright implausibility, a borderline-parody of femininity with permanently dislocated hips but who is, paradoxically, also mostly-sharp lines, notably a mouth like a red boomerang.  She should collapse altogetherwith her hair, she's shaped like a fancy banker's lampand yet she turns out to be the most emotionally-expressive, aesthetically-flawless character in the film thanks to supervisor Ken Duncan (and her clean-up lead Marianne Tucker, as the clean-up artists deserve much credit, and I can't think of a better opportunity to give them credit than with Megara, a daunting design who received the cleanest line and color here, plainly thanks to the work that went into giving those drawings of her architectural figure what feels like blueprint quality even before they went into the CAPS machine).


That third "favorite major character design" is Hercules, but Haycock's young Hercules, whose mutant, malproportioned body is a perfect nightmare of pitiful teenaged awkwardness.  And that's not to knock Deja, whose (adult) Hercules is mighty fine work from the master, spreading his wings a bit to do a hero for a change.  (Deja and/or Duncan pull one all-time great tearjerker out of a stunning illusion of death, putting enormous care into how the weight of Meg's corpse would react against the strength of a demigod trying to be ginger.)  This is all on top of that rainbow of glowing monochromatic Olympians, the first in-story characters we ever see, who are fairly open homages to Fantasia's "The Pastorale," and I don't know any quicker way to get on my good side.  But the whole cast is commendablethe closest to "bad" is Eric Goldberg's Phil, who's maybe too committed to Goldberg's personal prioritiesand while it's thrillingly different and, Phil aside, thrillingly cohesive, there's a small detail, I think, that illustrates the free hand everyone had inside this sandbox, namely the way that young Herc's pectorals are drawn as a sort of swirl that terminates in a weird, abstract suggestion of a nipple.  Whether this would have applied to female bodies is unknown, since, sadly, they never get around to referencing Minoan art.

The backgrounds have their own thing going on, tooI believe Scarfe wasn't a big contributor there, and the representative individual I'm going to credit is Bruce Zickand they're equally fantastic, maybe not exactly what you'd expect from the characters, but likewise going for it, without any apparent house-style constraints.  There's a consistent surrealism that's not normal for Disney, from the fairly-standard fantasy surrealism of Olympus (if it lacks detail, it gets the point across succinctly) to the more rewarding skeletal Gigerness of Hades's underworld, which reflects his blue fire in sickly, morbid teals and greens (and blacks, lots of blacks, and rivers made of souls).  The "quotidian" baseline, Thebes, might get the best of it, a trippy, impossible Greek city that is basically just temples stacked on top of each other, a brutish, kind-of-idiotic parody of "epic" design that's also dizzyingly cool in its own right.


The thing uniting all this is a sense of incredible scale: it's an action film, as much as a comedy, and this is where we start calling gigantism an "auteur" thing for Clements and Musker (and perhaps their layout guy, Rasoul Azadani, who's doing great work with a lot of action-oriented Z-axis CAPS-facilitated movement, albeit, as CAPS is proving to be a mixed bag now that I have to actually critique it, some troublesome things with not letting the Theban backdrops be in sharp focus).  The directors get to play with giant-sized action throughout this time: the hydra, an experiment in CGI character animation undertaken by Oskar Urretabizkaia (amongst others), gets a lot of shit for being uncanny, but that uncanniness has grown on me.  I do adore the labyrinth of hydra heads that Herc has to navigate during this sequence's climax, not to mention how disgusting they let the act of head-lopping be.  Domnique Monfrey's heftily-animated elemental Titans are outstanding (the detail on the ice giant's awkward walk, constantly freezing itself to the ground!), whereas my single favorite visual in the movie, what I'm restraining myself from calling the most fascinating piece of animation in the late Disney Renaissance and only because Tarzan's coming up, is Monfrey's Cyclops.  A Scarfe design that basically got translated directly from his concept boards, it's an extraordinary piece of curvilinear grotesquerie, composed seemingly entirely of violent flab, so when he plays hackysack with Hercules's enfeebled bod, he's both incredibly solid and disturbingly sloshy.

It's also a musical, which I've backloaded because this is probably its least-successful phase.  It does have 1.5 of my favorite Disney songs, but not so much because of the Muses who hustle our story through its paces.  I like the idea that composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel are playing with at Clements and Musker's behest, foisting gospel music (such as our expository intro, "The Gospel Truth") onto the narrative function of a Greek chorus, presumably out of irony, or else the mistaken assumption that "gospel" is a Greek word.  I like the idea behind the idea: it's the Muses who interrupt that Hestonian narrator, amounting to a renunciation of all traditional stuffiness, but invoking the Muses is a Greek thing to do, proving the truth of an account by claim to divine inspiration, so it's attempting to drag Herc back into the land of living myth, and that's what Hercules, however cheekily, is all about.


On the other hand, the Muses' songs are mostly only fine.  They front some neat, poppily-colorful montages (the Muses get the most properly-Disneyesque design, which is interesting, sort of placing them a layer closer to "reality"), but they fall into some gulf between actual gospel and Motown girl group pop, while also bearing Zippel's worst lyrics (referring to Zeus as "too Type A" is wretched atop being seemingly-inaccurate), and it's shouldering the hardest narrative lifts, with Zippel obliged, for instance, to funnel an entire cosmogony through a short expository song.  There is the one big exception, the one that gets an integer value of "my favorite," Meg's "I Won't Say (I'm In Love)," which fully embraces "just do an awesome 50s girl group number already," and it's terrifically unique, with its unusual cadence, and uniquely good, both as music and as character work, memorializing Meg's arc of world-weariness challenged by an unexpected collision with male decency.  It's modestly-staged around the conceit of the Muses as living statuary which Meg keeps glimpsing out of the corner of her eye, and that sing her real feelings while she lies to herself (that's how you do it, Hunchback), but it's one of the best "modestly-staged" musical sequences Disney ever got up to.  (And ends with some choice Clements/Musker Tone Control, in an image of Hades splitting a statue of two lovers in half, and using their melted bodies as a throne.)  In the middle, there's Phil's comic "One Last Hope," an excuse for a training montage (with, admittedly, some great jokes about a horrifically-abused "damsel in distress" doll); but I'm unsure if the idea of DeVito singing is amusing enough to justify the act of DeVito singing.  The half-a-favorite belongs to "Go the Distance," only because I can't honestly call it "a musical number"it's three verses, interspersed between whole scenes; it gets more mileage out of Menken using it in his scorebut I'm probably the world's biggest fan of this full-throated yearning ballad for Hercules, a hero most people don't like.  I do love it, however, and its pop single version is potentially my favorite pop single Disney song, even if, unfortunately, Michael Bolton doesn't wish to "please the gods."

I have used the word "favorite" many times here, and though Hercules makes it hard, I'm consistently amazed every time I watch it how good it is at what it sets out to do, and how Clements and Musker reconcile their mutually-destructive desires to make a balls-out stupid comedy and a grand mythological superhero adventure.  It's testament to their powers that they manage something that does feel mythic by the time it's over, about a hero who defeats death twice in a row, and then chooses death in the end anyway, in order to live at all.

Score: 10/10

*In actual Greek, Herakles or 'Erakles, depending on how you feel about voiceless glottal fricatives, but we're taking the movie's side.
**Attic numerals don't have unicode, though, which screws up my joke.
***I'll leave it to you whether Hercules is anti-Semitic, though we may assume Michael Eisner didn't find it so.

15 comments:

  1. First things first - Christianity is more ‘Judean theology had a baby with Hellenistic philosophy’ than ‘Greek Myth’ (After all, it was spread in Aramaic and Latin, as well as in the Greek vernacular).

    That significant point of order aside, I’m absolutely delighted to learn that we share a high opinion of this particularly Disney flick - it comes from a period when the House of Mouse seemed to be releasing it’s Big Picture just in time for my birthday at exactly the point I was best able to appreciate that coincidental honour, so it would have taken a series of ridiculously awful mistakes for me to actually dislike the film.

    Given the film is actively good, I therefore adore it (I excuse it’s tendency to ignore the Greek Myths mostly because it visualises them so beautifully - to this day my reaction to any adaptation of the Classics that produces yet another set of Luvvies in robes and not polychrome immortals who look as though Humanity is an interesting hobby, rather than a way of life, is a whisper of disappointment in my subconscious*).


    *That whisper is, of course, “How BASIC.”


    In all honesty though, given that Heracles was the last enemy to storm Troy before the Trojan War as sung by Blind Homer (If any work of Greek Mythology deserves to be animated in the “Holy **** those cartoons go HARD” ‘tis the Iliad of Homer) and that the tale as reported by Mr Robert Graves is the stuff of pure swords and sandals**, it’s not hard to see why someone at Disney floated the idea.

    The notion might work better in something more ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ than ‘Aladdin’ though.


    **To cut a somewhat-obscure incident from Greek Myth short, Heracles agreed to free the King of Troy from a monster: the King of Troy (Father to Priam, last king of Troy), being a greedy fool, short-changed him.

    Just guess how well THAT went.

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    1. I was being a little simplistic about the origins of Christianity for punchiness's sake; it's obviously at least as Jewish as Greek, particularly the more properly "mythological" elements that incorporate Jewish cosmogony and legendary history.

      The Iliad's a hard modern adaptation because its morality is so orthogonal to anything. "You took my war captive taken in a war founded upon, basically, the return of another captive to her rightful captor." (One of these days I need to watch Troy, though, it's kind of shocking I never have. And I've got Helen of Troy sitting around on blu-ray, though I haven't seen it in years and years.) The Odyssey just seems a bit tidier, or more tidy-able, plus it has more rad monsters.

      If animation is the medium, and no content restrictions, the history of the Greek gods would be rad. Or Orpheus. Really curious what that would've looked like from Trousdale and Wise, though Hercules is kinda Orpheus With a Happy Ending.

      I didn't mention it, but it's weird Persephone isn't in this, right?

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    2. It makes quite a bit of sense, given that Hades needs to be a Disney Villain - I.E. entertainingly sleazy, rather than just plain horrible - instead of a rapist in the most literal old-school sense (I.E. Someone who steals a woman away).

      For my money it definitely made more sense to borrow from the myth where Heracles beats up the Grim Reaper to get his friend’s wife back from the dead (Man, Big Herk could be the Best, as well as the Worst in those old myths), since that keeps the plot more straightforward (Especially if you make the lady in question Our Hero’s Love Interest).


      Concerning THE ILIAD, I’m not sure the cultural disconnect is an insuperable problem - assuming the plot is more about the chance to show Bad*** Anti Heroes wrecking each other in the most literally Epic Style (Bonus points if the musical soundtrack is more or less a Heavy Metal Opera IN GREEK that sets actual lines from the original poem to ROCK AND ROLL!).


      As for TROY, it’s probably not the best version of the original, but I love it anyway: as an Epic it has some real swagger, I have zero problems buying Ms. Diane Kruger as a woman worth launching a whole durn fleet for, Mr Brian Cox is having the BEST time as Agamemnon, Mr Eric Bana is a thoroughly noble Hector and the film also benefits from honouring one of my Rules of Modern Cinema (‘The more murderous Brad Pitt’s character, the more entertaining the movie’).

      So please do watch it: I suspect you’ll enjoy it, even if you don’t particularly love it.


      Also. might I please ask which HELEN OF TROY you’re referring to? (I can think of two productions by that name).

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    3. It is worthwhile to point out that Disney's 1934 short "Goddess of Spring" does do Hades and Persephone straight. It's probably not my literal second favorite Silly Symphony, but it vies for the position beneath "The Old Mill." Some really striking color style in it. And Hades is somehow more the Actual Christian Devil than in the 1997 film (and his realm more Actual Christian Hell), at least in design.

      I was specifically thinking of the 1956 Robert Wise Helen of Troy.

      And dang, I'd forgotten about the Alcestis story, which I guess this is as much like as Orpheus and Eurydice.

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    4. I vaguely recall watching that ‘56 version of Fair Helen, but will not pretend to any vivid recollection of that particular feature (and I certainly don’t listen to its soundtrack for my particular pleasure … actually, I listen to both versions of the TROY soundtrack every so often, since Mr Yared’s work is extremely good, while even a rush job by Mr James Horner’s is still pretty darned good).

      In all fairness I don’t recall that film having any particular vices either.


      I would also like to note that it’s quite amusing to be reminded that there are so very, very many Hercules tales - and even more amusing to realise that, even in the days before comics, some Superheroes got more press than others.



      Also, apropos of nothing, I hope to see an adaptation of THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR staged as a Bronze Age Bond movie: the notion that Theseus’ trip to Crete hits a lot of the same notes as a classic Bond picture (Especially if you incorporate elements of his trip to Athens - I like to think of it as his ‘Hunting Trip’ - as the ‘Action Prologue’).

      The Minotaur will, of course, be an actual **** Monster, though, because ‘Demythification’ is for COWARDS!

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    5. I am not a fan of the demythicized 2014 ('15?) Hercules. To the extent I kinda felt cheated, because the marketing campaign didn't make it clear it was a "grounded" Hercules. I mean, if you're doing grounded Hercules, just make a movie about (throws dart) Teutonberg Fortest or whatever.

      I don't mind, necessarily, a grounded Iliad. That can work. A grounded Odyssey seems like a real goofy idea.

      I'd watch that Theseus. (Though it reminds me of the Lou Ferrigno Hercules again, love that movie's Minos and Evil Sexy Lady Daedalus.)

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  2. I say "Call IX-I-I" gets a pass because (1) they're already using "Hercules" while otherwise sticking to the Greek names and (2) it's freakin' hilarious!

    In all seriousness, I really have no problem with the humorous anachronisms, at least the way the Disney renaissance tended to do it. In fact, I think I'd find the likes of Cinderella and Pinocchio et al more interesting if they did more of that kind of thing themselves (and the more dated the better, in fact).

    Back to Hercules, I also find this to be an oddly unsung member of the Disney renaissance. It's exactly the kind of thing Disney was best at and NOBODY else ever managed to replicate. Maybe Hercules as a subject is a bit too generic and public domain-ish to really stand out to most people (their 'Robin Hood' at least had the whole talking animals thing).

    Apropos of nothing, I think they should've given ol' Herc a beard.

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  3. Oh, another good example of Clements and Musker's instincts with tone and humor is the cameo of Scar from The Lion King, which could have been groan-worthy in a hundred ways but manages to avoid all of them, even as it gets more and more obvious as the scene goes on - hell, it's downright Airplane-esque how it gets funnier the more blatant it is (culminating in Phil literally rubbing his face in it)!

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    1. The Scar Nemean Lion is pretty good, it's a little groany, but it's very acceptable.

      Prince of Egypt is along similar lines to Hercules and in many respects as accomplished, but you probably meant "also wacky," and the wacky part of Prince of Egypt is very bad.

      A beard would be correct but for some reason I just don't see it on this Herc. Lou Ferrigno's, meanwhile, would've looked weird without it.

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    2. I suspect it’s the Tate Donovan voice and general lack of lionskin: this Hercules is just too civilised for the ‘Hairy Mountain Man Hercules’ look to work.

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  4. I confess with some embarrassment that I never consciously placed all the Superman parallels, so thanks for pointing that out. But I by and large agree almost everything here -- like A Goofy Movie it's one that I kind of expected to hate once I grew up (see: Space Jam), but still deeply love and admire, maybe even more than when I was a kid. Hercules really is a miracle of navigating tones.

    I like all the music though, from the B+ tier "I Want" song through every Greek chorus gospel tunes (I've come to love the weird, almost abstract, blasts of color in "Zero to Hero" also). And, yeah, "I Won't Say I'm In Love" is one of the best songs of the Renaissance.

    Glad to see you ditch the Roman numerals for the title.

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    1. I Won't Say I'm In Love=Go The Distance>Zero to Hero>Gospel Truth parts I-III>A Star Is Born>>>>>One Last Hope.

      I wish it weren't part 51. Ionian numerals just make it NA (or va), Attic 51 should be a sort-of superscript delta hanging from a gamma like a gallows with a tally mark I on the side. If I'd realized it was 51 I'd have done Treasure Island and The Love Bug or something just to get it to where it effectively lands.

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    2. Oof yeah “One Last Hope,” that is the weak link. I like the bit where he’s telling Hercules about all his failed heroes before that though. A lot of -euses!

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    3. That almost made it in as a nitpitck. "Yeah, I bet there were, in your gendered, inflected language!"

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    4. That line becomes even more amusing when you remember that Hercules is related to one of those ‘euses’ (Theseus, to be precise: I believe their mothers were cousins in some degree*).


      *There’s actually a rather lovely bit in Mr Robert Graves’ THE GREEK MYTHS where a very young Theseus and friends are frightened off by Heracles’ lionskin (One imagines the latter, unobserved, giving a sudden Herculean roar) only for Theseus to come back wielding an axe against the Ferocious Beast.

      I really, really like to imagine Heracles grabbing the axe handle in order to lift Theseus right off his feet at that point - good lionskins don’t grow on trees, you know, and I think this was before he acquired the Nemean pelt - both of them grinning like ninnies at the joke.

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