Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
June 22, 1997
The new Disney adaptation of Hercules is one of the few event movies this summer that lives up to its Olympic ambitions.
From the opening frames, you can tell the dull, preachy tone of the last two Disney blockbusters Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame is gone. Before Charlton Hestonís larger-than-life baritone can continue droning about the greatness of the demigod Hercules, a chorus of funky, wisecracking Muses takes over. From them we learn about how Hades (voiced by James Woods), the evil god of the underworld kidnaps the young son of Zeus (Rip Torn). He then orders his bumbling assistants Pain and Panic (Matt Frewer and Bobcat Goldtwhait in the best performance of his career) feed the infant deity a poison that robs him of his godhood. The two bungle the task. While rendering him mortal, they accidentally leave him with divine strength. Young Herc (who is taunted by other teens as "Jerkules") is clumsy and unintentionally destroys just about everything in his path.
Hercules (Tate Donovan) learns of his origins and hooks up with a satyr named Phil (Danny DeVito), who has trained such near heroes as Jason and Achilles. Herc hopes to work hard enough to regain his divine birthright, but heís hindered by his unrequited love for the cynical Meg (Susan Egan) and by Hades who must destroy the hero in order to begin his "hostile takeover" bid for Mount Olympus.
Co-writers and directors John Musker and Ron Clements (Aladdin) make the most of their mythic material. They even add some wonderful bits of contemporary satire to the mix. For example, Herc saves Thebes ("The Big Olive"), and his feat is commemorated by lines of athletic sandals and action figures. The wit also runs off on the character designs. While even the weakest 90ís Disney cartoons have had animation that made them worth the price of admission, Hercules is far more stylish and creative than its predecessors. The characters look like a cross between Greek vase patterns and an Al Hirschfeld drawing.
The voice casting is impeccable. DeVito is appropriately paternal, and Egan gives Meg a lot more personality than most of the recent Disney female leads. Even some of the minor voices (youíll love who plays Hermes) are a treat. Nonetheless, Hercules belongs to the hysterically funny Woods, who plays the Stygian boss as a demented stock trader ("Can I call you, Herc?"). Woods clearly loves being a cartoon villain, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
The conclusion is a bit protracted, and the songs by multiple Oscar-winner Alan Menken and David Zippel (City of Angels) arenít that memorable. Still, it takes some audacity to set Greek myths to a Gospel beat. Taken as a whole, Hercules is delightful in a way that few of the other recent Disney cartoons have been. If only mythology were this much fun in school (G). Rating: 8.
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