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Disney's Myth Conception

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 27, 1997

The story behind "Hercules," Walt Disney’s insipid, lifeless, animated feature, is hardly the stuff of children’s entertainment. For starters, in classical mythology the Greek hero was the result of an illicit union between Zeus and a mortal, married woman called Alcmene. Hera, Zeus’s betrayed wife, was so enraged, she sent serpents into baby Hercules’ crib. When that failed (the kid strangled the snakes), Hera couldn’t rid herself of that yucky, vengeful feeling. So when the adult Hercules married Megara, the queen of Mount Olympus rendered him temporarily insane, causing him to slaughter his wife, three children and two of his nephews.

There’s more: As a youngster, Hercules killed his music teacher, Linus, for reprimanding him (kids, don’t try this at school), and he tended to help himself to any damsel that crossed his path. One night on the heroic road, for instance, the Herkster rewarded one of his hosts by sleeping with all 50 of the old man’s daughters.

In the Disney movie, the dark material has been airbrushed out of existence. This is understandable, but in its place, the mouse factory has inserted narrative mush that’s ineptly conceived, woefully performed by the off-screen actors and badly animated. Our hero is a bionic, noble doofus with calves so big they look like bowling-pin implants. The heavenly child of Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar), he’s abducted from Mount Olympus by scheming Hades, lord of the underworld (James Woods, attempting to sound like a lovable sociopath). Hades, whose desire to rule the gods is threatened by Hercules’ destiny, orders two hellish lackeys (Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer) to administer a potion that will render the boy mortal. But the goons don’t give him the full dose, which leaves Hercules potentially immortal.

Raised on Earth by mortals Amphitryon and Alcmene, Hercules (Tate Donovan) eventually learns of his connection to Zeus from the thunderous god himself. But to prove himself worthy of returning to his celestial home, Hercules must show his heroism. Aided by his winged horse, Pegasus, and trained by Philoctetes (or "Phil") the satyr (Danny DeVito), Hercules takes on Hades and his arsenal of weapons, including a 30-headed Hydra and a two-faced, vaguely slutty beauty called Megara (or "Meg," played by Susan Egan), whose job is to discover Hercules’ weakness.

Writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who ushered in Disney’s great new era ("The Great Mouse Detective," "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin"), are now presiding over its downfall. The animation, designed by British illustrator Gerald Scarfe and executed by time-saving computer animation, is some of the worst I’ve ever cringed through, including the corner-cutting junk of Don Bluth movies and every trashy cartoon that passes for entertainment on Saturday morning television. In "Hercules," ancient Thebes looks like a hastily sketched field-trip location from public TV’s "The Magic School Bus"; and no self-respecting immortal would be seen dead in this simplistic rendition of Mount Olympus. Hercules, an almost embarrassing set of cheap squiggles, barely qualifies as a drawing. There isn’t a glint of life in that ham-fisted, thick-necked caricature, nor in his supporting cast of cheaply etched gods, goddesses, muses, mortals and satyrs.

The off-screen cast members seem uniformly thunderstruck by their woeful, two-dimensional counterparts. DeVito’s supposed one-liners land with dull thuds, and Woods’s interpretation of Hades as a sleazy Hollywood agent is cliched and strained. Guess you can’t have Robin Williams all the time.

If the visuals and the performances are bad, the music is worse. Alan Menken composed some wonderful songs for "Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" "Aladdin," "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." But his score for "Hercules," along with David Zippel’s insipid lyrics, ought to be shoved into Pandora’s box and padlocked forever. The wit is forced and the songs (particularly Hercules’ Oscar-contending "Go the Distance," screeched out by Michael Bolton) are parodies of Menken’s better work.

The trouble is, there is no Avis-spirited competition breathing down Walt Disney’s corporate neck. The monster just grows and grows. Turn on the TV, and there’s ABC-TV (Disney’s own) or cable’s Disney Channel doing behind-the-scenes features (morning and night) about the making of "Hercules." Walk into McDonald’s and you’re surrounded by a display of plastic figurines from the movie. Caught in this monopoly of mediocrity, parents have little choice but to obey these mercantile commands. And after they have dutifully watched "Hercules," they will be bombarded with ads telling them to purchase the video version. After they get tired of watching that, they can always rent or buy the "Hercules" sequel, which is already planned for straight-to-video release. The Disney tentacles are everywhere. Where’s Hercules when you really need him?

HERCULES (G) — Contains nothing particularly objectionable for kids -- although adults may want to smuggle in a flask of espresso.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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