Tuesday, January 29, 2013

1997 - Hercules


Hunchback was a contentious movie, but while it didn’t reach the heights of their earlier renaissance work, it did get noticeably better reviews than Pocahontas. It made slightly less money, but the critical goodwill was back, and since their next feature was a lighthearted comedy in a historically themed legendary setting, from the directors of Aladdin. So they must have felt a bit more confident going in, despite Greek mythology being about as suitable for a family film as the colonization of America or a Victor Hugo novel. Was their confidence well placed? Or would this be the one that snapped their more tenuous success? Feeling heroic? So am I. So get some nectar and ambrosia, and let’s talk about Hercules.


HONEY, YOU MEAN HUNKULES! Yes, so right from the beginning, the movie sets its tone by having Charlton Heston provide stereotypically heroic opening narration until he is interrupted by The Muses, who appear on a vase in the style of… a small gospel choir. Yes, the musical language of the movie is distinctly modern and American, with Motown sound being the name of the game. The Muses are also individuals, with distinct personalities that match their musely duties. The five featured in the film are Epic Poetry, the lead narrator; Tragedy, who’s a bit overdramatic; Dance, who’s the most physical; History, who sings a lot of the more trivia-based lyrics; and Comedy, who’s the sassiest and cracks the largest quantity of wise.

I have to admit, through the opening number, I was nervous. I mean, starting a movie with Charlton Heston saying “You go, girls” is not something that inspires great confidence in me. But I got into it before too long, and by the time Herc’s origin was told, I'd stopped taking notes and started watching. Right from the beginning, the tone of the movie is set. Lots of jokes, and no respect for history or myth. In most movies based on Greek myth (movies about Titans clashing, for instance), I get annoyed when Hades is played as The Devil. But in this one, I could buy it. Hercules is the son of Zeus and Hera, who are a loving couple? Sure! The Titans are 400-foot tall elemental monsters? Why not! Moirai and Graeae confused and mashed together? Knock yourself out, movie. Every single detail of every myth is thrown out the window? Who cares, this movie’s hilarious.

The movie didn't play well in Greece. But what do they know?
I did not expect the style of the movie to work the way it did. Here’s the thing: I’d never seen the whole thing, only bits and pieces. My sister, on the other hand, is an INSANELY huge fan of the movie. From what little I’d seen of it, and from the fact that her other favorite film is “An American Tail 2: Feivel Goes West” (which I have seen), I didn’t have high hopes. But as I watched it with her, I started to see what she saw in it, despite her constant gasping and informing me every five minutes that “this is the best part”. The jokes came so fast that when they hit a stinker (Thebes is “The Big Olive” because ha ha Greece), a good one (Hades infuriated that his henchmen have bought Hercules merchandise) would be along not far behind.

The plot is… Well, it’s basically Superman. Oh, sure, there’s some Star Wars in there, a soupçon of King Arthur, a big glob of Rocky, but it’s mostly Superman. And not just in the basic Hero With a Thousand Faces way, either. It’s pretty much exactly the 1978 Superman movie. Herc is born on another world, but cast down to live on Earth. He’s found by a kindly couple, farmers, who take him in and raise him as their son. As a teenager, he feels awkward and out of place, and is made to hide his immense strength. At the urging of his father, he goes off to seek answers and finds a remote, many-columned building where he speaks to his birth father, who tells him to become a hero. He gains public acclaim and is tempted by a fast-talking, salesman-like villain. The villain robs him of his powers to enact his evil endgame, but when the hero’s love interest, a bold and confident independent woman, is killed, he gains a rush of power, stops the villain, and saves her life. It’s Superman exactly.

Hades even has a pair of Otises.
Well, if Superman was a musical. And unlike the actual Superman musical, the music in this one is good and character-appropriate. The Muses and love interest Megara stick to that flowy, groovy, modern style, and Young Hercules has an inspirational power ballad which fits in nicely. The only one that doesn’t fit the tone is “One Last Hope”, sung by Herc’s trainer Philoctetes, which is a bouncy 1950s musical-type song. But Danny DeVito, has a winning personality and a surprisingly capable singing voice, so he makes it work. Look, they weren’t going to be bad, they’re by Alan Menken, and while I’ve never heard of lyricist David Zippel, he does quite a good job. And kudos for not pushing in a gooey love song in a movie where none would fit.

The characters are really well-done, in terms of casting and design. Realism is out the window in this one, with big, bold loops and sharp angles forming the characters. Hercules is animated by Andreas Deja, who was originally offered Hades, but wanted to do a hero for once. He maintains the physical language of the scrawny, awkward teenage Hercules even as he grows into a full-sized heroic figure. Megara is designed in total contrast to the big buff marshmallow that is Herc, with sharp angles and slender limbs. Philoctetes is a furry little bowling ball, Hades is a cross between a Doric column and a vulture, everyone’s got their own visual style that complements the others. Oh, and like 80% of the characters have long pointy noses.

See, the one guy has to point with his finger because his nose can't handle it.

They’re well-realized, too. Megara in particular is jaded and sarcastic in a way that feels real while still providing ripe fuel for one-liners. She’s voiced by Susan Egan, who came to Disney’s attention as the original Belle in the Beauty and the Beast musical, but her voice here couldn’t be more different, or better suited. Hercules is voiced by Tate Donavan, who plays it with the perfect combination of surface bravado and unpracticed insecurity. Danny DeVito plays Phil like every trainer from every boxing movie ever (mostly Mickey). The Muses are played by a variety of big-voiced black women from Broadway. The standout in their group is Roz Ryan as Thalia (Comedy), who sadly never instructs Meg to tell Hercules she thinks he’s HAWWT. Hades’ henchmen are kind of little nothings of characters, but they serve important functions in the plot and are voiced by that-guy-you-keep-seeing-in-stuff Matt Frewer and that-guy-whose-voice-sounds-familiar Bobcat Goldthwait, who bring a lot of life to the show.

The biggest standout, though, was Hades. Not only was the design great, with needle-like teeth, bulky arms ending in long, spindly fingers, and blue flames for hair, the personality was completely fantastic. Hades was originally written to speak in a slow, spooky, and methodical manner as a Lord Of The Dead stereotypically would. And they brought in several actors to read him as such. One of them was noted character actor James Woods, who started improvising and joking around with the dialogue between takes. When the directors saw this, they did a complete 180 on the character. Woods was allowed to ad-lib most of his dialogue, which hadn’t been done since Robin Williams in Aladdin. The new Hades was a schmoozing used car salesman type, which fit perfectly with the modern style of the movie. Woods’ gift for maintaining an air of menace at all times was not at all diminished by the comedy, but he crucially kept the film from being that worst of all things, a comedy with a serious villain.

A serious Hades would have been to this movie what the gargoyles were to the last movie. Something inconsistent that showed the filmmakers didn’t trust the tone they’d come up with. There are a few signs of that in here, particularly in the serious moments, where the film tends to waver, but they are few, and at least well-placed. This movie isn’t perfect, but it is very, very good. Sadly, as Hercules is to Amphitryon, so this film is to Disney, i.e. a red-headed stepchild. It doesn’t get too much in the way of promotion these days, there’s comparatively little merch at the Disney stores, and it’s rather forgotten as a Renaissance picture, which is too bad. Girls these days could use a little Megara in their princesses.

I don't have a caption for this one, I just like it.

The reason for its comparative lack of interest was that it wasn’t the monster hit that they wanted. It didn’t do badly, and received even better critical notices than Hunchback, but another 100 million dropped off the box office total, which was a real kick in the pants to Disney. It’s weird, the mindset where a 250 million dollar take is a disappointment, but when you go from 500 mil with Aladdin to 900 mil with The Lion King down to 350 mil with Pocahontas and Hunchback, another drop of 100 can induce screaming insanity. Don’t fret, they won’t have a legit flop for a long time; even Fantasia 2000 made its money back. But next we’ll be looking at their first movie to have the bulk of its production time after Pocahontas premiered. Let’s see what lessons they’ve learned.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

* Great Hera, that's a busy poster. What, did they have an intern put it together?

* Pegasus is a My Little Pony. Just saying.

* A major source of conflict is that Herc can’t live on Olympus until he becomes a god, and he gives up his godhood at the end to be with Meg. Why can’t they just make her a god? Or change the rules for their sake? Is the homeowner’s association of Olympus going to complain?

* Lots of good visual gags and reference jokes. The constantly deteriorating dummy in Herc’s training sessions, a Karate Kid reference of Herc and Pegasus practicing crane kicks while standing on plinths, Hercules posing for a painting while wearing the hide of Scar from The Lion King, lots of stuff like that.

* Probably my favorite, in terms of obscurity was in a scene where Hercules is shown putting his handprints in cement. Above, he’d written “To Sid, love Herc”, a reference to Sid Grauman, the founder of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, home of the famous celebrity handprints. A close second is Hades insultingly referring to Pegasus as a Pinto, which is not only a famously lousy car, but also a kind of horse.

* Phil was animated by Eric Goldberg, who did the Genie. He’s usually a director, and those were the only characters he directly supervised until The Princess and the Frog, which is too bad, because I like his work.

*The inspirational ballad, “Go the Distance” was covered in the end credits by Michael Bolton, who just plain makes it inspirational as hell. In all three Spanish dubs, Hercules was voiced by Ricky Martin, who turned the song into a number one hit.

* Cummings Watch: Jim Cummings pulls out three of his generic voices, “mean guy”, “big guy”, and “old guy” to play Nessus the centaur in Herc’s first battle and two Theban citizens introduced in the following scene. This is nothing on Hunchback, where he managed to play four characters (two Gypsies, a boatman, and a guard) in just the opening scene.

* The muses left out of the film were Astronomy, Song, and Love Poetry, who would have fit right in. Only Hymns doesn’t particularly fit, as reverence is not this movie’s deal. But nine would have been too unwieldy, so I don’t blame them for cutting them down.

* Remarkably, the people that complained about The Little Mermaid cover and the SFX in The Lion King had no problem with Hades’ chin. I guess they’d calmed down by 1997.

I mean, seriously. Look at it.

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