Written & directed by John Musker & Ron Clements
Voices of Tate Donovan, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Samantha Eggar, Bobcat Goldthwait, Matt Frewer, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Barrie, Paul Schaffer, Charlton Heston & Joshua Keaton.
Opened: June 27, 1997 | Rated: G
For the first time since "The Lion King," Disney has assembled an animated summer feature that is gratifying for adults, too.
Despite being strictly formula fare that takes wild liberties with the mythology that is its source (so what else is new?), "Hercules" has the kind of ironical, layered humor that keeps grown-ups entertained with topical asides while the kids thrill to the standard adventure and giggle at the requisite blundering goons.
Disney's Hercules (voice of Tate Donovan) wasn't born of one of Zeus' earthly affairs, but made mortal as a baby when his formula was tainted by Hades, the story's villain.
James Woods, Hollywood's current bad guy dejour, delivers Hades' voice with such lounge lizard aplomb that his antagonist alone is worth the price of admission.
Referring to Zeus as "Mister Hey You, Get Offa My Cloud" and calling everyone "babe," this beady-eyed King of the Dead plots a "hostile takeover" of Mount Olympus, and sounds like he's been planning it over games of poker with the Rat Pack.
Narrated by a gospel music Greek Chorus and using illustrated vases to move between parts of the story, "Hercules" opens with a few clumsy, narrative tunes that get us up to speed.
After Herc was turned mortal, he was left on Earth and grew up awkward and unable to control his own strength. As a teen seeking guidance from the gods, he visits a temple where a marble Zeus comes alive, fills him in on his past and suggests he seek out Philoctetes (known as "Phil"), a satyr who trains heroes. The deity dad is voiced by Rip Torn who, with his thundering but amicable baritone, was a stroke of brilliant casting.
Meanwhile Hades and his clumsy minions Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer) plot against Herc, having been told by the Fates (three blind old witches who share one eyeball) that the young hero could derail the planned attack on the gods.
The only problem with "Hercules" is that it was cast straight from the rigid Disney cartoon template. Psychologically, Hercules face the same trials and tribulations as Quasimodo, Simba and Aladdin, with the only variations being time, place and theme.
Early on we have the young Herc humiliation scene, then a generic song of self assurance ("Go the Distance"), followed by the "Rocky"-inspired training montage, then another bland show tune ("Zero to Hero").
Once Herc is big and buff, he and the loud-mouthed Phil (Danny DeVito, in another perfect casting decision) strike out for Thebes, a cynical city in need of a savior. "Rough town," says Phil. "Good place to build a rep."
On the way, Herc rescues his first damsel in distress -- the sassy Megara (Susan Egan) -- from an evil centaur. Cut from the same cloth as Esmerelda in "hunch" (but with considerably more personality) Meg is has a hard candy shell of attitude with a soft heart underneath.
Because of an ill-advised romantic decision that involved selling her soul, Meg is reluctantly in the employ of Hades, and falls for Herc in spite of herself.
Sticking to the standard outline, before long we have the big heroic moment (battling a fantastically computer-animated Hydra) -- and another song -- the big romantic moment -- and a song -- then the battle with Hades over Mount Olympus and the fate of Meg's soul.
In closing, Zeus offers up a cheap, universal philosophy ("A true hero isn't measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart") -- and fade out.
What keeps "Hercules" from becoming trite (for adults anyway) are the inspired currenty jabs co-writers and directors John Musker and Ron Clements take at everything from "Midnight Cowboy" to Disney's own overbearing marketing.
When Herc and Phil first arrives in Thebes, they're nearly run down by a horse-and-buggy taxi. "Hey, I'm walking here!" shouts Phil.
Herc eventually becomes the Michael Jordan of Thebes, with his face on not only every Grecian urn, but on sandals and sports drinks. There's even a Hercules store that looks suspiciously like the Disney outlets cropping up in malls over the last few years.
Best of all, look for an ironic cameo by Scar from "The Lion King" -- as a pelt.