When The Little Mermaid released in 1989, it earned $211 million on a $40 million budget. Unadjusted for inflation, only The Rescuers Down Under earned less in theaters during the Renaissance era. Hercules is the least profitable of the Renaissance movies that released after The Rescuers Down Under, earning only $252 million on an $85 million budget. That’s despite doing well with the critics. After seeing Hercules for the first time, I’m wondering what the critics were smoking.
I remember when this movie released in 1997, and I think my uncle even had a storybook version of the movie that he bought for my adopted cousin. I glanced through it, didn’t think much of it, and pretty much never thought of the movie again unless an internet celebrity I follow talked about it. That doesn’t happen very often. At the time I was trying to grow up a bit too fast and I looked down on “kids” movies, which is why there’s a stretch of 7 Disney movies coming up that I’ve never seen. Well, that’s part of the reason.
Hercules is the only Disney Animated Feature from the 90’s I’ve never seen before now. As far as I can tell, Hercules is the Disney Renaissance movie most people ignore. Even The Rescuers Down Under is talked about, at least because it’s the first theatrical sequel in Disney canon (still the only one released), and a lot of people consider it an underappreciated classic. Hercules, not so much.
Back in 1992, Disney’s Animation Studio held a big meeting where 30 different animators, writers and artists pitched a bunch of ideas, given 2 minutes each. One of the movies accepted at the time was The Odyssey. Although they started The Odyssey’s early production, they eventually cancelled it because it would either be way too long, or they’d cut so much out of it that it wouldn’t be worthy of the name anymore.
Around the same time, an artist pitched the story of Hercules, which eventually grew into Disney’s 35th animated feature. Ron Clements and John Musker, fresh off of Aladdin, agreed to direct the movie when their push for Treasure Island in space didn’t pan out. We’ll get to that when we reach movie number 43. Both directors enjoyed comics, and they liked the comic book feel of the Hercules story, which some argue is the first superhero story ever. It seemed like the perfect fit, and their track record of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin was very good.
I won’t get into too much detail for the original Hercules myth. Most people know the general story. I remember talking about it in grade 5 and I’m sure Greek myth is touched on in schools throughout most of the world. Instead, let’s briefly look at the movie.
One thing that bothered me about the movie right away is the music. Coming fresh off of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its epic, classical inspired anthems, a Greek mythology based movie with half of its songs styled after Southern Gospel music really doesn’t work. Speaking as a Christian I never enjoyed that kind of music anyway, but here its obnoxious and feels out of place. It doesn’t really match the visual style either.
The visual style is somewhere between a look that resembles Greek hieroglyphics and ancient art work, with a touch of Vegas with its flashing lights. A better musical style to fit the visuals would be along the lines of a Vegas stage show, mixed with ancient musical instruments. I kind of get why they chose it. The movie does feature gods, and Southern Gospel is a modern form of worship, but it just doesn’t sound right for a movie based on Greek Mythology.
Compared to all the previous soundtracks in the Renaissance, Hercules’s soundtrack is forgettable, leaning heavily toward a comedic feel instead of a dramatic, or even a heroic theme. Even when Hercules dives into the underworld to save Megara, the music doesn’t sound the least bit epic or dramatic. It’s just kind of there. Between the soundtrack and the excessive gospel style songs, there’s hardly anything memorable about the soundtrack. Even the occasional breaks, like the R&B sounding “I Won’t Say (I’m In Love)” isn’t all that special, partly because the Gospel singers interrupt what would otherwise be a decent song.
There is one exception to the movie’s lackluster music, and that’s Hercules’s song, “Go The Distance”. It begins as a balled for a young Hercules who doesn’t know where he belongs. Shortly before he sings it, his strength is really starting to get in the way of his civilian life. It’s actively harming his adoptive human father’s business, partly because of his recklessness. As the song moves on though, Hercules gets more and more determined to find where he belongs, ending in an anthem song of sorts. This song really shows why Alan Menken is such a great song composer, responsible for many of the best songs from the Disney Renaissance and even in a couple post-Renaissance movies. If Hercles did better, I’m sure “Go The Distance” would be recognized as one of the greats.
At least it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Unsurprisingly, it lost to Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On”, but it did receive the nomination it deserved.
Besides the media in Greece tearing the movie apart for its heavy alterations to the original myth, Hercules’s biggest criticisms were thrown at its animation style. While there are moments where the animation is technically impressive, the art style makes the movie look a bit rushed at times. Hair is often drawn in large clumps. Backgrounds seem to change shapes and sizes in the middle of action scenes. It gives the movie a bit of a childish look, which really didn’t help the fact that I looked down on the movie as a 10-year-old looking forward to his teenaged years.
But where the animation really falls flat is the CGI. In all the previous movies, even in The Great Mouse Detective, the animation looks brilliant for its time. The Hunchback of Notre Dame looks particularly impressive with its very detailed external shots of Notre Dame, created almost entirely on computer. This movie’s main use of CGI involves pillars that look perfectly round, without even the appearance of shadows, and a giant monster that looks straight out of a PS1 video game. Well, a PS1 video game smoothed out so that it doesn’t feature jagged edges, but there’s about the same level of detail. The end result is that the entire fight looks cartoonish and not epic at all. The animation style would work well for a TV series or a short, but a theatrical release deserves more.
The movie is often praised for its comedy though, especially James Woods’s performance as Hades. Instead of talking like a typical villain that gives us an evil laugh every now and then, he talks more like a lawyer. It’s a really creative idea for the god of the underworld, always making deals and trying to outsmart people. He’s usually amusing enough to hold my attention, and a lot of people love his performance in this movie. He didn’t quite make me laugh though. There were only a couple moments in the movie where I laughed. Comedy can be very subjective, and I’m sure there are people who will enjoy this movie’s style of comedy. I’m not one of them.
So yeah, Hercules wasn’t for me. I don’t feel like there’s much more to say. With the exception of the brilliant “Go The Distance” and a handful of mildly amusing moments, this movie alternated between feeling boring and irritating to me. I didn’t feel anything for the characters. With the exception of Megara, whose moral dilemma between serving Hades and her love for Hercules is fairly well done, none of the characters show any real depth. Hercules is some dumb jock who wants to be a hero. That’s not enough to base an entire movie on. Hercules does have its fans, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it. This is easily my least favourite Disney Renaissance movie so far.
Next up is Mulan. I’ve only seen Mulan once, but I do remember enjoying it a bit despite trying to grow up too fast at the time. After that, it’s the final movie of the Disney Renaissance, Tarzan. Next in line is Fantasia 2000, the first of three Disney Animation Studio features released in the year 2000.