Are You Sure That's Your Name?
When 1997's Hercules came out it was deep in the animated studio's attempts to find a new Aladdin. That movie, with its irreverent hero and anachronistic Genie set a template that the studio tried, and failed, to recapture over and over again. Hercules took the formula of that other animated adventure -- comedic sidekicks, irreverent humor, anachronistic references -- and turned out a bit of a muddled mess of a film from all perspectives.
Let's be clear up front: I actually found myself enjoying the Disney Hercules. This is surprising to me because everything I'd heard about the film -- that it was crassly commercial, that it ignored all the Greek myths it was supposedly built on, that it had a terrible plot and rushed through all the character beats -- is all true. The film isn't Great by any stretch of the imagination. But for an hour-and-a-half it provides just enough animated fun to be worth watching. Once, anyway, but maybe not again after this.
For people that know the stories around Hercules -- fathered by Zeus and a mortal woman, hated by Hera, forced to go on a series of trials just to prove himself a hero -- essentially none of that is in this movie. Here Hercules was born a god, son of both Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar). They are both loving parents and dote on the young tyke, even giving him his own companion: a Pegasus. Unfortunately for Hercules, Hades (James Woods) has designs on the throne of Olympus and will do anything to get his way. When he gets a prophecy that Hercules will defeat him in 18 years, Hades has his two minions, Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer) does the boy with a potion that makes him mortal... mostly. The infant is still impressively strong, and still technically can't be killed, which leaves Hades in a bit of a spot (when he eventually finds out).
Zeus and Hera are understandably saddened when they find out their son is now mortal, but the rules of Olympus are very clear: only immortals can reside in the halls of the gods. The two gods send their son down to Earth where he's tended to be a loving couple (which shades of SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s.). When the boy grows (and is now voiced by Tate Donovan) he decides to take his incredible strength and use it to be a hero (because a statue of Zeus tells him that a true hero will become a gods, allowing the boy to rejoin his immortal family). He just needs the help of Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), a satyr that has trained many past heroes, and to avoid falling for the whiles of femme fatale Megara (Susan Egan), all before taking on Hades for the fate of Olympus.
And, well, that's a lot of story for a short, hour-and-a-half film. We have to get the setup of Hercules, and then another setup, and then a training montage for another setup, all to then lead to the eventual showdown with Hades. The problem with so much plot being shoved in all at once is that it doesn't leave a lot of room for the story to actually breath. We bounce forward on Hercule's story in fits and starts, only getting small snapshots of him at various points in his life, but he really doesn't come into his own as a character until the last act of the film and by then it almost feels too late.
Honestly, that's an issue with just about every character in this film. Phil trains heroes, but all his heroes died, so he's reluctant to take on Hercules. But then, the second he does take on Hercules, he's all in... and that's the end of his arc. Megara has Hades hanging over her, having soul her soul to the god of the underworld to save someone she loved (only to have that person betray her after). But Megara doesn't want to screw over Hercules. And then she doesn't. And then she doesn't again. And she dies for it. Her whole arc really amounts to, "I met Hercules, I liked him, I talk to him for a day, I love him, I die." That's not an arc and she remains a barely sketched character (who is at least sassily written) to the end of the film.
The worst offender, certainly, is Hades. What is his plan exactly? He wants to rule Olympus even though it doesn't seem like the gods actually do anything. He's afraid of Hercules because of a prophecy, but then, because he thinks the kid is dead, he has nothing to do with Hercules for 18 years. Hell, the characters don't even face off until the last third of the last act, which is literally when they have their fist bit of dialogue with each other. They're so far removed they could practically be in different movies.
Hercules himself doesn't really have much to do. All the big, heroic things you'd expect we'd see (his 12 Trials, for example, that define him as a hero) are glossed over in a couple of montages. His big fight against Hades barely happens, and Hades is defeated not because of Hercules but because the other gods are freed and take out Hades themselves. And even then, Hades falls into the underworld -- his home, remember -- and... dies? Does he? Can he die if he's in the underworld? The movie thinks he can but that really doesn't make any sense, and certainly Hercules doesn't get to claim the credit for it regardless.
The movie is crassly commercial -- it goes so far as to equate Hercules to a superhero and shows all the commercial products the boy gets as part of being a hero, from his face on a Big Gulp cup to Hercules branded sandals -- and I'm sure everything in this movie leads to a number of toys and other merch that Disney actively sold. The film honestly feels like Disney Park ride that was then turned into a movie afterwards (which Disney has done before), it just skipped a step in that order. It's Disney unironically talking about their merchandising, which feels like a joke without being funny.
These are all the reasons the film fails. But there are five reasons the film is awesome: Calliope, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Thalia and Clio, aka the Muses (Lillias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan and Vaneese Y. Thomas respectively). These gals act as the Greek Chorus for the film and they sing and dance their way through the film, delighting the audience with their style and their songs. Seriously, were it not for these five fantastically animated ladies this movie would be an absolute disaster, but they work the hell out of their portions of the film and elevate everything around them.
And I just can't hate the film. It's big, it's dumb, and way too broad, and it totally destroys the myth of Hercules. It could have been named anything else and I probably wouldn't have hated what it did to the story, but I think I'd still have problems with just about everything else in the film. I love the Muses and I wish they had a better film to work with. Still, for a single watch, this film is decent enough to entertain. Just don't expect to want to watch anything other than clips of the Muses after this.