Monday, June 24, 2024

Disney Bro: HERCULES (1997)

 by Patrick Bromley

A new column about being a Disney bro.

Our family just returned from another trip to Disneyworld, this time to see my daughter dance on stage there. She was wonderful, of course, as was the trip. Erika and I enjoyed an early 20th wedding anniversary dinner at the same restaurant at which we spent our honeymoon in 2004, and the whole trip reminded me that Disneyworld is one of my favorite places to be with my favorite people in the world. While it was on our last visit that I learned to embrace being a total Disney bro, it was this time around as I was watching clips from all the Disney animated movies during the fireworks show one night that I was overcome by the desire to watch or rewatch nearly a century's worth of output. Of course that would be way too daunting, especially if I were to force myself to start from the beginning and go in order, so I came with the idea of turning it into a column to hold myself a little more accountable. It is not my goal to cover ever movie Disney ever made -- I don't need another recurring column that only sets me up for failure ("Need for Tweed," anyone?) -- but rather to fill in the some of the gaps in my knowledge and to revisit some favorites.

There are a few ground rules I'm setting for myself as embark on this journey. Here they are:

1. These columns are to be written from a place of discovery, not expertise. I am not nor do I claim to be a Disney historian.
2. No Pixar and no live action (for now).
3. I will try to avoid repeating films from the same decade two columns in a row.
4. The columns will mix movies I've never seen (there are several!) with movies I've already seen and want to revisit.
5. All of these rules are self-imposed and subject to change anytime I want.
When I was at Disneyworld in the Spring, I tweeted out that I was now a Disney bro and that my current favorite film in the studio's library is Sleeping Beauty, at the same time putting out the call to see what others' favorites were. I was surprised how many responses came back as Hercules, because while I had never seen it, my understanding was that it was mid-tier Disney -- a product of the late-'90s fall off wherein the company's second (or third, or fourth) Golden Age was starting to wane a little. Seeing so many people name it not just as upper-tier Disney but as their absolute favorite of the entire catalogue shot the movie to the top of my list, and when the idea for the column came to me I knew it was the title with which I wanted to kick things off. I'm happy with my choice.

Directed and co-written by Ron Clements and John Musker -- the filmmaking team responsible for ushering in the '90s Golden Age of Disney animation with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin -- Hercules is both what I was expecting and a pleasant surprise. It follows the exact formula of just about every Disney movie of the decade, from the main character's "Who am I?" anthem (here it's "Go the Distance" by Alan Menken) to the cutesy little sidekicks for both the hero (a stubby little half-goat named Phil and voiced by Danny DeVito in an obvious bit of casting) and the villain (Pain and Panic, Hercules's version of Flotsam and Jetsam from The Little Mermaid or the hyenas from The Lion King, voiced by Matt Frewer and Bobcat Goldthwait) who exist diagetically for comic relief but really it's so toys can be sold. Something about if it ain't broke, of course. These are not criticisms! Disney gotta Disney. Tate Donovan provides the voice of Hercules, a bit of casting that gave me pause on paper because he's something of a mayonnaise sandwich, but in practice he's actually quite good in the role.
Stealing the movie is James Woods as Hades, without question the best and most interesting performance in Hercules. Apparently, Woods was not even on the original list of actors the filmmakers wanted for the role -- first choice Jack Nicholson demanded way too much money and John Lithgow was let go after nine months of trying to make his performance work -- but it's impossible to think of the movie without him now. Hades is a perfect avatar for Woods: fast-talking, hyper kinetic, pure evil, and it's clear that the actor is having a blast doing the voice without just riffing on what Robin Williams had previously done in Aladdin (though, like Williams, Woods apparently ad-libbed a bunch of dialogue that the directors wound up using in the finished film). Woods is such an electric presence on screen that I wasn't sure how he would translate to animated form, but the Hercules artists and filmmakers do such a good job of adapting his very specific energy to the medium that neither the movie nor the performance miss a step. Hades isn't an especially threatening villain, but he is a really entertaining and fun one.

My favorite thing about Hercules wound up being the stylization of the animation. About 700 artists, working from and inspired by sketches created by English cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, created the movie's look, which distinguishes itself from all of the other Disney movies of the 1990s (which, while beautiful, have a sort of sameness to them) with unique character designs made up of extremely strong lines and all sharp angles. It's exciting to see a company as risk-averse as Disney taking a chance even if it's just with the visuals, and I only wish it had led to more of their subsequent movies having design identities of their own (Yes, I know there were some; The Emperor's New Groove comes to mind). I'm sure people who understand art and animation better than me can see the differences in a number of their films; I remain a layman who thinks Hercules stands out as one of the studio's best-drawn (with some help from CGI) efforts of the '90s.
Perhaps the reason Hercules didn't usher in a more experimental approach to Disney's animation is because despite making $100 million domestically (and $250M global), the end result was considered a box office disappointment. The movie wound up outgrossing only The Rescuers Down Under among all Disney's 1990s output. A direct-to-video sequel was planned but eventually canceled, though an animated spin-off series featuring many of the original voice actors ran for just over 50 episodes from 1998 to 1999, four episodes of which were later packaged together for the DTV Hercules: Zero to Hero in 1999, so technically it did receive a sequel of sorts. 

Time has been good the movie, it seems, not just because it's developed a large fanbase (if my totally unscientific Twitter poll is any indication) but also because Hercules really holds up. I didn't think any of the songs outside of the Oscar-nominated "Go the Distance" managed to pop, but the story is well-tested and the jokes about celebrity are surprisingly sophisticated, with the company having some fun at the expense of IP obsession at least a decade before those ideas really took hold in pop culture. I'm glad I started my series with this one: it mixes tradition with novelty and stands apart from the rest of the '90s offerings while still reminding me why I'm a Disney Bro. Even if you're not one, hopefully you'll enjoy reading these columns.

What should I watch next?


  1. Congratulations to you and Erika on the 20th anniversary. What a happy achievement to share with a life partner.

    What to watch next? Maybe something from the past that you need to re-watch? The Rescuers?

    BTW, Mikko had recommended Disniversity to me in the past, a podcast that covers all the animated Disney movies starting from the beginning. It's hosted by a animation academic and a film journalist, so they have a lot of insight into where the movies fit into the history of the company, as well as lots of stuff about the evolution of the animation through the years. Really a lovely informative listen every time.

  2. Love this and can't wait to read your takes on some of my underrated faves like Hunchback, The Great Mouse Detective, and The Sword in the Stone.

    Rescuers Down Under also has some weird magic to it lol.

  3. Yes! All the Disney!!! And I love Hercules!