Hollywood being the kind of place it is, people out there are waiting for the powerhouse that is Disney animation to get its comeuppance. The good news about "Hercules," at least for the rest of us, is that they're going to have to wait awhile longer.
Light on its feet and continually amusing, this free-spirited show-biz version of Greek mythology ranks with the best of modern Disney animation. Cleverly constructed to appeal to boys and girls, children and adults, it also has, in "City of Angels" Tony-winning lyricist David Zippel, the first person since the late Howard Ashman who's been able to write the kind of snappy musical patter these features thrive on.
The guiding spirits here, the writing, directing and producing team of John Musker & Ron Clements, worked with Ashman and "Hercules" composer Alan Menken on "Aladdin," and this film combines much the same wisecracking aura with a dollop of romantic poignancy.
It's been done with subject matter--the Greek hero who was the strongest man on the planet while coping with a rather painful personal history--that is unlikely. But Musker & Clements (working with co-writers/stand-up comics Bob Shaw & Donald McEnery and Disney vet Irene Mecchi) have done a brisk and successful cut-and-paste job on the original material, nervily mixing and matching elements from all over classical mythology. In comes the flying horse Pegasus to be the big guy's pal, out goes Hercules' destructive fits of madness, not to mention the time he cut the noses and ears off an unlucky group of messengers.
Kudos is also in order for how deftly the project's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" comic tone has been combined with traditional Disney life lessons for little folks. Who would have guessed that Hercules was the kid who didn't fit in, the adolescent who needed to prove himself to his father and, finally, the young adult who has to discover that heroism is something measured only by strength of heart. It kind of chokes you up, it really does.
"Hercules" isn't slow in unveiling its comic tone. Narrator Charlton Heston gets to read no more than a handful of somber words before he's cut off with a sassy, "Will you listen to him? He's making this story sound like some Greek tragedy. Lighten up, dude."
Those words come from the Muses, cut down from the original nine to a manageable five (Lillias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Vaneese Thomas) and transformed into a Greek chorus that is part Motown girl group and part gospel choir. Their trio of the Gospel Truth numbers introduce characters, provide back story and jump-start the film into an up-tempo gear it never abandons.
Though no one can duplicate what Robin Williams did for "Aladdin," the irresistible James Woods as Hades, the cynical, fast-talking king of the underworld, comes surprisingly close. Introduced at a party Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the gods, are giving for baby son Hercules, he enters with a Don Rickles wisecrack ("I haven't been this choked up since I got a chunk of moussaka caught in my throat") and never pauses for breath.
Hades, you should know, is not a happy god. He has a plan to replace Zeus and get the hell out of the underworld, but the Fates, who know all about the future and tell a bit ("Indoor plumbing--it's going to be big"), inform him that he won't succeed unless he's able to neutralize Hercules.
Working with comic sidekicks Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), Hades manages to turn Hercules human, but he still retains his godlike strength. Herc grows up to be a gawky teenager, teased as Jerkules for his clumsiness, but his life takes a better turn when he discovers that Zeus is his father and that proving himself a hero on Earth can make him a god once again.
Philoctetes, Phil for short, is a pudgy satyr who knows all about heroes. He's trained the best of them, from Achilles on down, but having "been around the block before with blockheads like you," he considers himself retired.
Naturally, Hercules changes his mind, and as played by Danny DeVito, Phil is the film's energy source when Hades isn't around. The kind of guy who calls everyone "kid" and tells people to keep their togas on, Phil has a Borscht Belt vocabulary and a determination to make Hercules the greatest there ever was.
On the way to Thebes, the Big Olive, "a big tough town, a good place to start building a rep," Hercules runs into Megara (Susan Egan), a.k.a. Meg, a different kind of Disney heroine, the kind of been-around, good-bad girl who could have been voiced by Barbara Stanwyck. She arouses Phil's suspicion and incites Pegasus to jealousy, but the look in Hercules' eyes tells us she'll be sticking around.
Given the kind of guy he is, it's inevitable that Hercules (Tate Donovan) battles lots of strange monsters. The most impressive (and the film's only nod to Hercules' storied 12 labors) is the protean Hydra, a beast that grows new heads whenever one is cut off. A technological marvel, the Hydra is the film's most impressive computer-generated character, and no wonder: The press notes say a team of 15 artists and technicians worked on the five-minute sequence for two years.
When our hero becomes "the greatest thing since they put the pocket in pita," a process detailed in the rousing "Zero to Hero," the film delights in satirizing Disney's well-known penchant for merchandising, including omnipresent Air-Herc sandals and the hot-selling "30-minute workout scroll, 'Buns of Bronze.' "
But, like any protagonist, Hercules has to discover that "being famous isn't the same thing as being a true hero," and the process of doing so involves him more intimately with Meg in a way that sentimentalists will find satisfying.
Though they're not big star names, without the excellent, feeling work of Donovan as the adult Hercules and Egan as Meg, "Hercules" would have considerably less impact. The animation, with an assist from British illustrator Gerald Scarfe, has just enough of a different look to it to make things interesting. What remains the same is the ability of Disney feature-length cartoons to entertain like crazy. It's hard to believe that lines that move can move us so much, but they do.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: Battles against monsters may be too intense for smallest children.
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Hercules: Tate Donovan
Young Hercules: Joshua Keaton, Roger Bart
Phil: Danny DeVito
Hades: James Woods
Meg: Susan Egan
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directors John Musker & Ron Clements. Producers Alice Dewey and John Musker & Ron Clements. Screenplay Ron Clements & John Musker, Bob Shaw & Donald McEnery and Irene Mecchi. Editor Tom Finan. Music Alan Menken. Lyrics David Zippel. Production design Gerald Scarfe. Art director Andy Gaskill. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
* El Capitan, 6838 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 467-7674. In general release throughout Southern California starting Friday.