24 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 35: Hercules

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Disney never fails so consistently than when they try to be hip and edgy. By that rule, 1997's Hercules is a ninety-minute master class in Disney mistakes. The film is crammed so full of sass and attitude that its cup runneth over from the very first frame. This is the Aladdin effect to the nth degree. Not only are the sidekicks on either side of the film's good/evil divide loud, brash, and utterly annoying, but so is the villain and the love interest. The voice line-up, featuring such restrained thespians as Danny DeVito, Bobcat Goldthwait, Paul Shaffer, and James Woods, is a veritable who's who of mugging, scene-chewing, amplified "personalities", all vying for the largest chunk of comic "relief".

The film's abiding order of attitude is on display from the opening prologue. The stentorian voice of Charlton Heston begins to narrate the history of the Greek gods but he is quickly shuttled aside by the Muses, an incongruous gospel-pop singing quintet of sassy black women who come to life out of Greco-Roman artifacts. They sing an upbeat, completely generic appropriation of soul music called "Gospel Truth", one of the many entirely forgettable Alan Menken contributions to the soundtrack. By this point in his Disney tenure, Menken is completely spinning his wheels, writing banal genre pastiches to accompany trite, formulaic lyrics, penned here by David Zippel. The soaring melodies suffocate in the vast vacuum of their emptiness.

After the prologue, the plot gets thrown quickly into motion as the scheming Hades plots to wage war on the gods but discovers that he will fail unless the newborn Hercules is out of the picture. This is revealed to him by the Fates, who we are told in big bold letters are possessed with omniscient clairvoyance. This leads to a fundamental flaw that plagues any picture that turns to all-knowing prophecy to kickstart its story. The Fates say that Hades will succeed if Hercules does not fight, but of course since they know all, then they know whether or not he will fight. Why is that rather crucial element left out of the prophecy?!? Why don't they tell Hades that try as he might to thwart, hide, and even kill the child, Hercules will return in the end to save the day? It makes absolutely no sense. Regardless, Hades sends his minions Pain and Panic to steal the child away from the clouds and deposit him on Earth. They force Hercules to drink a potion that makes him mortal but retains his godly strength. The orphaned baby is then taken in and raised by two kind countryfolk who wait until he is a teenager to tell him he is adopted. Basically the origin of Superman. Due to his strength and the destruction wrought by his clumsy, klutzy foibles, Hercules is shunned from society. All is soon well however when he discovers that he was born a god and that when he becomes a true hero on Earth he can reclaim his place in the clouds. 

This is where Danny DeVito comes in. DeVito, who even in animated form can't help but be three-feet tall, plays Philoctetes, a satyr personal trainer who we first meet as he is spying on some bathing nymphs from behind some bushes. Creepy. Phil, as he likes to be called--and as a means of relieving the audience of the burden of having to remember a name more than one or two syllables long--trains Hercules to be a hero, all the while spouting bromides like, "oy vey" and bon mots such as "I've got a fur wedgie". Later on as he flirts with Hercules' love interest, Megara--pardon me, "Meg"--he sits in her lap and calls her "sweet cheeks". This is the level of wit on display throughout Hercules.

The film even seems ashamed that it is being produced by the company that created such enduring characters as Mickey Mouse and classic films like Bambi. At one point, Meg is walking through a haunted forest and she comes upon two overly-stylized woodland creatures, replete with big, innocent eyes and soft, rounded features. This is an all-too obvious nod to the quintessential "Disney style". Her response to meeting these two animals is to call them "two rodents looking for a theme park". A thoroughly strange response, even though the "rodents" are just Pain and Panic in disguise. 

The style of animation in Hercules is a unique break from the Disney tradition, borrowing from the classic line form of Greco-Roman art. This could have been an opportunity for artistic rewards but unfortunately it is all translated into a overly broad, thoroughly "cartoonish" palette that is reminiscent more of cut-rate Saturday morning television than anything else. Even the CGI--which was used to such jaw-dropping effect in the previous Hunchback of Notre Dame--is mediocre. The biggest computer-generated effect is for the multi-headed Hydra, who is so textureless that it looks like it was borne of plastic. 

The plot continues to steamroll along in a chariot of mockery and musical mundanity. Hercules falls for Meg, who unbeknownst to him is enslaved by Hades. At the romantic apex of the picture, Hercules tells Meg with complete sincerity, "when I'm with you, I don't feel so alone". Obviously the boy was famous for his braun, not his brain, for a reason. Hades of course recognizes Hercules' infatuation as his one weakness and he uses Meg as leverage to extinguish Hercules' strength while he unleashes his army of Titans. Hercules battles without his strength, then regains it, kicks further butt, and the world is saved. Ho-hum. 

Hercules is a failure through and through. There is nothing of note to grasp onto, not even a glimmer of promise to keep us going to the end. It is an inarticulate, uninspired slog, full of repugnant wiseacres shouting and groveling and canceling one another out. The film actually spends precious time showing us the cottage industry that grows up around Hercules and his heroic actions. We get the image of a demon wearing branded cross-trainers. We get kids calling the pre-pubescent hero "Jerk-ules" not once, but twice. We get Michael Bolton belting it out during the closing credits. What we do not get is a narrative arc of any emotion or consequence. We do not get any compelling characters to root for or sinister villains to loathe (unless the loathing comes from James Woods's hammy performance as Hades). We do not get enjoyment from this shallow piece of Hollywood hackery. 

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