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Disney's 'Hercules': Myth for the Masses

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 27, 1997

"Hercules" is "Rocky" in a toga, and Disney's animated bio of the pagan powerhouse a Looney-Tunesy spoof of muscle-bound movies, celebrity worship and, curiously enough, the studio's own shameless hucksterism. As for the last, the movie even features a Disney store selling plastic Herc-abilia in the colorful Theban agora.

This anachronistic new feature is even less faithful to its original source than was last year's more elegantly crafted "Hunchback of Notre Dame." Then again, it's not truth or beauty that counts here, but how much this galoot of a Grecian earns.

Of course, what really took place on the cloud-cloaked slopes of Mount Olympus is hardly the stuff of a Disney cartoon. (Not that this jokey fable retains any of the NC-17 exploits of the pagan pantheon.) Here the hero retains his Olympic paternity, his bulging he-manliness and his place of residence. Beyond that it's a whole new pocket of pita: no adultery, no infanticide, no pornographic constellations. Even the Baptists might like it.

The story opens at Hera and Zeus's birthday bash for their newborn son. All the gods and goddesses are oohing and gooing when the cynical Hades (James Woods) crashes the party. "I haven't been this choked up since I got a hunk of moussaka caught in my throat," quips the lord of the Underworld. Subsequently he sends a pair of dimwitted imps (Bob Goldthwait and Matt Frewer) to kidnap baby Hercules and condemn him to a life of earthly mortality.

In a reference to "Superman," the baby is adopted by kindly farm folk who marvel at his supernatural vim. Soon enough he's a gawky teenager (voice by Tate Donovan) who learns of his adoption and sets out to find his real parents with the help of his crusty trainer, the potbellied satyr Philoctetes (Danny DeVito).

Herc and Phil travel to Thebes, a monster-menaced metropolis known to the local urbanites as the Big Olive. There the fabled strongman soon makes a name for himself by slaying the many-headed Hydra and saving distressed damsels. His feats bring him adoration, product endorsements, fast-food ties and his own action figure (coincidentally available at a toy emporium near you). Soon every kid's also got to have a pair of Air Hercs and every mom her copy of the hero's buns-of-bronze workout scroll.

But there's more to Disney's Herc than just flex appeal. The brawny blond steroid junkie has a whole lotta heart and a surprising weakness for show tunes. From time to time the lovable lug, looking like he just stepped out of a West Hollywood gym, throws out his freshly waxed chest and belts out a song.

Take "Go the Distance," a ballad about -- what else? -- going the distance in life. Like the other songs by Disney veteran Alan Menken and his new lyricist, David Zippel ("City of Angels"), the number gets the job done, but it doesn't topple the temple. The score is influenced by gospel, Broadway musicals, processional music and R&B, but its only spice is its variety.

"Hercules" was directed, produced and written by the "Aladdin" team of John Musker and Ron Clements, and its frenzied pacing and irreverent comedy recall that magic carpet ride. But its tone is the borscht-belt burlesque of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." You want zingers? They got zingers! (Hermes, played by Paul Shaffer, offers this sandal-splitter at the birthday party: "I haven't seen so much love in one room since Narcissus fell in love with himself.")

If that's not enough fun for you, there's an overly sassy quintet of Motown Muses in the role of traditional Greek chorus. They also provide back-story and introduce not only characters but constellations. "You go, girls," advises narrator Charlton Heston when the Muses dis his sonorous declarations on classic mythology.

Chock-full of celeb cameos, puns and contemporary camp, the movie is annoyingly hip. It wants to belong even more desperately than its title character, who yearns to be a god almost as much as Pinocchio wanted to be just plain human. "Hercules," alas, is hardly in the same class with the emotionally compelling "Pinocchio" -- although on many occasions its hulking hero seems just as wooden.

Hercules is rated G.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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