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Hercules

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Hercules

Starring: Tate Donovan, James Woods
Director: John Musker
Rated: G
RunTime: 87 Minutes
Release Date: June 1997
Genres: Animation, Comedy, Family, Kids


*Also starring: Roger Bart, Danny DeVito, Joshua Keaton, Bobcat Goldthwait, Matt Frewer, Rip Torn, Hal Holbrook, Charlton Heston, Amanda Plummer



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Review by MrBrown
3½ stars out of 4

After making steps toward maturity with 1995's serious-minded Pocahontas and last year's vastly underrated dark masterpiece The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney's 35th full-length animated feature, John Musker and Ron Clements's comic adventure Hercules, finds the studio in retrograde. While this shift in gears is a bit disappointing after the admirable ambitions of the previous two films, there is no denying that Hercules is a rousing crowdpleaser--the type of light, fun family entertainment the Disney name has become synonymous with over the years.

The first few minutes of Hercules could not be more of a contrast from the dark opening of Hunchback, in which the evil Judge Frollo kills baby Quasimodo's mother attempts to drown him in a well--we see the absolutely adorable baby Hercules (whose big head makes up two-thirds of his entire body), superstrong son of gods Zeus (voiced by Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar), cuddling with his pet, baby Pegasus. The bliss on Mount Olympus is short-lived, however; baby Herc is soon snatched away by god of the underworld Hades (a well-cast James Woods, more smarmy used car salesman than devilish overlord) who feeds the child a potion that makes him mortal and thus unable to rejoin his parents in the land of the gods. Under the training of wisecracking satyr Philoctetes (Danny DeVito, in top wisecracking form), the strong and brave Herc (voiced as a teen by Joshua Keaton and Roger Bart; voiced as an adult by Tate Donovan) becomes, if you will, the Michael Jordan of ancient Greece, admired by millions and earning millions through endorsement deals. But to regain his divine aura, he must prove to be a "true hero," and standing in his way is Hades, who plots to take over Olympus for his own dastardly purposes; and possibly Megara (Susan Egan, the original Belle in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast), a sharp-tongued damsel whose true motives are not clear.

As with all Disney animated features, the music is one of the main attractions--or, at least, it should be. For Hercules, regular Disney tunesmith Alan Menken, this time collaborating with Tony-winning lyricist David Zippel, provides his most uneven work for a Disney film. The majority of the singing is done by a quintet of Muses (Lilias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, and Vaneese Thomas), a Greek chorus of narrators that is part gospel choir, part Motown girl group. Their soulful numbers, which are more than slightly reminiscent of Menken's catchy '50s-flavored work in Little Shop of Horrors, provide a toe-tapping (if not particularly memorable lyrically) musical framework for the film. But Menken's more traditional, formulaic numbers fall flat. Phil's dreadful comic number "One Last Hope" picks up right after Hunchback's weakest song, the uninspired gargoyle showcase "A Guy Like You"; and "Go the Distance," Herc's big "I Want" song (his _only_ number in the film), is a forgettable, sappy ballad that shallowly expresses his desires without shedding much inner light into the character. Menken would have been better off spreading the R&B motif through the entire picture--a point reinforced by the film's best song, "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)," sung in the style of a '50s girl group by Meg and the Muses. Why the producers chose a version of "Go the Distance" (sung by, of all people, Michael Bolton) to serve as the film's pop single instead of a rendition of this memorable song is beyond me.

Hercules also leaves a little something to be desired on the visual level. While the artwork and animation is perfectly serviceable, the rather simplistic art style is a bit of a comedown after the impressive visual splendors of Hunchback. There is only one truly visually spectacular sequence (Hercules's wild battle with a computer-generated Hydra) and only one character with a striking look--Hades, whose head-topping flame changes color depending upon his mood. Meg's appearance is particularly disappointing; a femme fatale is something new and exciting for the genre, but her animators aren't up to the task. Both curvy and sharply angular, jarringly so, she is the first unattractive female lead in recent Disney animated features. But where the artists fall short, Egan makes up, delivering Meg's lines with the right balance of sass and teasing allure.

And what about Hercules? He's big, strong, well-meaning... and dull. Sure, he has all the muscles; he can lift heavy objects over his head; but no distinctly interesting personality shines through. At least Aladdin had his life of crime and Prince Ali charade, John Smith his "consent vs. descent" issue with Pocahontas, Simba his guilt over his father's death, the Beast and Quasimodo their angst over their appearances. Nothing is really made of Herc's main conflict (godly strength trapped in a mortal body), save for one scene in which the teenage Herc is called "Jerkules" after inadvertently destroying some architecture. He displays some cockiness when he first meets Meg, but it's quickly thrown out the window; perhaps a longer-lasting dash of that would have added something to him.

Even with a vapid void in the center, Hercules is still top-flight entertainment for the family, even if it does not quite qualify as an instant classic. It should have no problem reversing Disney animation's slowly eroding box office grosses, which makes this Disney fan worry. With the light, bouncy Hercules's box-office success just about assured, will the Mouse completely abandon, unjustly so, more experimental and mature animated works like Hunchback?

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