Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: G
Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker
Written by: Ron Clements, John Musker & Barry Johnson
Voices of: Tate Donovan, Josh Keaton, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Bobcat Goldthwait & Matt Frewer
It happened. I had been on such a good streak for a while and I finally stumbled across some misguided nostalgia from my childhood yet again. I vaguely remember seeing HERCULES at the drive-in. I was six years-old at the time, Disney movies were pretty much the only films that I was able to see on the big screen. At the time, I loved this film. This was on repeat at my house after it hit its VHS release. Having watched this Disney take on mythology for the first time in a solid decade, I can safely say that I really don’t like this film anymore. I’ve heard people complain about HERCULES for Disneyfying Greek mythology or misrepresenting certain parts of the legend of Hercules. Neither of those are my complaints with this movie, instead my problems with Disney’s version of HERCULES stem from it feeling far too rushed with little to no character development, the dusty pop culture references, and interchangeable musical numbers. 1997’s HERCULES is a big mixed bag.
Zeus and Hera have given birth to a new Greek god named Hercules. The baby has immeasurable strength and is loved by every god on Mount Olympus. However, the ruler of the underworld, Hades, decides to kill Hercules in order to secure an evil future plan for the control of Mount Olympus. The assassination attempt goes sour and Hercules winds up as a Demi-God. As an awkward misfit with superhuman strength, the teenage Hercules discovers his true identity and trains under the guidance of Phil to become a hero. Hoping that his good deeds will eventually earn him a place back in Mount Olympus, Hercules winds up falling for frequent damsel-in-distress Meg and draws the attention of Hades, who is more than a little pissed to find that Hercules is still alive.
The biggest problems with HERCULES become apparent in the first five minutes of running time. We are introduced to the Muses who sing a gospel themed tune prologue about titans and gods. The song is forgettable and forced. The pacing of the prologue feels overly rushed and doesn’t give the viewer enough time to gander at the images being presented on the screen. It doesn’t get much better from that point, because the Muses reappear to sing more gospel tunes about Hercules’s progress throughout. Even when the Muses aren’t part of a musical number, the songs from Hercules (the best of the bunch, but only okay), Phil (way too forced) and Meg (a simplistic song about being in love) are pretty mediocre for the most part. The pacing of this film is messy. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram all of the Hercules story into the space of 90 minutes while focusing too much on pop culture references.
Since the script feels like it’s rushing by way too fast, this doesn’t exactly leave much room for character development. We get the whole conflict of a teenage Hercules in the space of 5 minutes and it’s mainly played up as a tired joke. I couldn’t feel much for Hercules, because he’s simply the bland hero. While Meg definitely has more attitude than your typical helpless damsel in distress, she’s not exactly likable and you might wonder what Hercules sees in her. Meanwhile, Danny DeVito is simply shouting his lines as Phil. James Woods’s Hades is the only character in HERCULES that I actually liked. The casting decision was pretty genius and he plays the God of the Underworld as a slick, slimy jerk with deadly intentions. He’s simply a blast to watch, but his moments (much like everything else in this film) pass by far too quickly. Though Hades is a solid villain, his two demon sidekicks, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), perform a tired slapstick routine for the entire movie.
If there’s anything that I can honestly praise in HERCULES, aside from James Woods playing Hades, it would be the animation style itself. The songs might be forced. The characters might be bland. The movie might move at a pace that’s too fast for its own good. In spite of all of these things, 1997’s HERCULES looks cool. There’s a combination of CGI and traditional animation on display. It blends together quite well, especially in a sequence when Hercules faces off against a many-headed Hydra. The odd animation style is creative and I liked it a lot. It’s really a pit that it’s being wasted on such a mediocre script.
HERCULES has two qualities that could possibly make it worth recommending to certain people. You have James Woods playing Hades. That would sell me on morbid curiosity alone. The animation is really unlike anything that Disney has done before or since. It’s a very odd look and I enjoyed the visuals a lot. However, that doesn’t nearly make up for bland characters, shaky pacing, and forced musical numbers. I didn’t like HERCULES, but not because it put an overly Disney spin on Greek mythology. Instead, it’s simply because I found the film to be a mixed bag with two good qualities and a lot of bad ones. Overall, HERCULES is on the lower end of Disney’s animated spectrum (not including direct-to-video sequels, of course).