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Mediocrities of Thebes


Disney Does in 'Hercules'

By Richard von Busack

Having the four easy choices of Hercules as a bully, a square, a joke or a complete vacancy, Disney took the last path. For its new animated marketing extravaganza, the company has issued press notes that try to trace the legend of the great hero back to antiquity: "Ovid was the first to write about Hercules in 1000 BC. ... Several hundred years later, the fifth-century poet Euripides added to his legacy."

Not quite. Euripides' version of the hero in the plays Heracles (in the Greek spelling) and Alcetis, as historian Willie Durant notes, "can be understood only as a subtle attempt to make the legend ridiculous." And as Durant also remarks, in the ancient lore of the Greeks (and this lore was around 1,000 years before Jesus, even if Ovid [43 B.C.E.-18 C.E.] wasn't), "Heracles is the beloved son of god who suffers for mankind, raises the dead to life, descends into Hades and then ascends into heaven."

Yep, potent stuff in the right hands, but the 35th Disney full-length cartoon, Hercules, is desperate from beginning to end. This Herc is not very proactive, and the filmmakers seem to know it, so they throw the hero around and jazz up the film as much as possible with loud music and cutting. Disney's Hercules is just an action figure pushed around by events--another passive hero (like the new Batman, a detective who doesn't detect anything but is ordered around by Commissioner Gordon as if he were a patrolman).


The official Disney page.

Also, the Internet Classics Archive allows you to run a search on any name from Greek mythology and get a list of references in classical literature. The references are linked to the full, online texts (in English translation) of the original source documents.


Air Herc

Trying to keep the story hip, directors John Musker and Ron Clements embarrassingly introduce it with Charlton Heston telling a gospel-singing chorus of muses, "Go, girl."

Here, Hercules is the child of the very functional (as opposed to dysfunctional) celestial family of kindly Zeus and Hera. The bad-for-no-reason Hades (voiced by James Woods) steals the baby, takes him to Earth and sets his two henchmen, Pain and Panic, to try to kill the infant.

They fail, and Hercules (voiced by Tate Donovan), under the schooling of a satyr (Danny DeVito), becomes a celebrity. But then he's undone by the woman Megara (voiced by Susan Egan, Belle from Broadway's Beauty and the Beast), who turns out to have a past.


Shamefaced satirizing of merchandising--Air Herc sandals advertised on a giant mosaic billboard, for instance--can't get a laugh. It's not that merchandising has gone beyond just a laughing matter, but there are American Express jokes in both Hercules and Batman & Robin--at what point does a joke become an homage?

The Disney corporate mentality keeps the really talented subdirectors in these pictures from breaking the candied surface. Hercules hums along like an uninteresting machine, although the unarguable technical facility of the animators is helped out by the slightly more abstracted look of the characters. Elongated is the word. Megara's waist is as long and narrow as drainpipe. The savage caricaturist Gerald Scharf (The Wall) did the original designs, which, one supposes, were a little more child-unfriendly.

Nessus the Centaur--who really looks like one of Scharf's monstrosities--and Hercules engage in a fine battle, and the descent into Hell stirs you even if you're benumbed by fake gospel songs. Mostly though, a film derived from a breakthrough can make you want to get back to the breakthrough itself: I wished I was watching Aladdin again. Trying to top that last best Disney movie, the directors pile Armageddon on top of a harrowing of Hell, when they should have stuck with one or the other.


The Hercules score is more proof of the lamentable state of the musical. The Golden Arches is featuring a promotion now in which you can get CDs of Disney music: "Hero Songs," "Buddy Songs" and "Rascal Songs." This gives the notion that there are actually three huge dumpsters labeled like that somewhere down there in Burbank with a snow shovel next to them. The usual Alan Menken-brand cream cheese is laid out with jangling lyrics by David Zippel (City of Angels): "Disappointment/for which there is no ointment."

That sums up Hercules--a story of an epochal hero told by timid storytellers daunted by the power and darkness of the legend.

Hercules (G; 86 min.), directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, written by Bob Shaw, Donald McEnery, Irene Mecchi, Clements and Musker, and starring the voices of James Woods, Danny DeVito and Susan Egan.

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