The period known as "The Disney Renaissance" is generally considered the 10-year period beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989. While the final three movies of Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan fall within that time, they don't have the same reputation as the earlier blockbusters. They have limited representation in the theme parks and aren't regarded as classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. I grew up with the Disney films and caught the big '90s movies in the theaters. By the end of this golden age, my interest waned and caused me to miss the last three releases. I'm calling that era the "Post Disney Renaissance" since the movies don't have the same acclaim. Each has its share of fans, yet the general feeling is different about them. This trio offers the perfect opportunity for a short marathon. Also, my daughter Elise is three-and-a-half, so this gives me a chance to watch them with her. I'll be documenting her reactions in each post since she hasn't seen them. As a Disney fan, I'm excited to catch up with a blind spot in their history. The first selection is 1997's Hercules, which I knew little about before this viewing.
What's this story about?
Hercules (Tate Donovan) is born on Mount Olympus to Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar) and is set for the life of a God. Unfortunately, Hades (James Woods) has other ideas and tries to eliminate the new baby. The Fates have shown Zeus' evil brother that Hercules will squash his plans to release the Titans and take over the world. The boy survives the attack but is now part-mortal and living on Earth. His mentor is Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), a satyr who's trained star heroes like Achilles. Hercules grows up and learns how to fight and save people from monsters. He becomes a celebrity and is very popular, but he may be set for something greater. Meanwhile, Hades learns his whereabouts and schemes to take out this final obstacle. A key part of his plan is Meg (Susan Egan), a brash young woman who's caught Hercules' eye and could give Hades the chance to take him out.
Is Hercules on par with the most popular movies from the Disney Renaissance?
Not really. The marketing pushed the fact that it was based on mythology, not a fairy tale. It's interesting to see them taking a different approach, but the results are bland. Following the surprising adult themes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this feels like a step backwards. It's the standard good vs. evil story where the brave hero stands up to danger and saves the day. I enjoyed the sequence when Hercules becomes a celebrity and starts taking out all types of monsters. In a strange way, this mirrors the opening "Eye of the Tiger" sequence in Rocky III and shows the commercialism around the guy. He transforms into something different than a hero who wants to go home. While I don't expect an in-depth look at celebrity in a kids movie, this brief stop helps this typical adventure. Snappy dialogue from James Woods' Hades and Susan Egan's Meg livens up the proceedings, but they can only do so much with such a bland hero.
How is the animation? Has it lost any of its luster today?
Hercules arrived at an interesting time when animation was incorporating more CGI but hadn't yet transitioned to it. This gives it a strangely dated style because it feels closely tied to the late '90s. Unlike the classics of Disney's past, it uses hand-drawn animation but looks different. It's obvious that serious care was put into the movie, but it falls short of other stunning Disney films. That said, there are still some impressive sequences. The highlight is the battle with the hydra, who regenerates two heads for every one chopped. Hercules is oblivious at first and keeps eliminating the heads, which is not wise. This creates a massive enemy that seems indestructible and looms over the little guy. It's an exciting sequence that gives the story a much-needed boost. While it's fun to watch Hades scheme to take him out, we don't really care if Hercules saves Olympus or not.
Do the songs deserve a place with the best Disney songs of that time period?
One of the most intriguing parts of this movie is its approach to music. It has the Oscar-nominated ballad "Go the Distance" and songs written by Alan Menken, but it feels different. The Muses act as the narrators of the movie and sing R&B and gospel-themed tunes. Those performances are effective and bring life to the story, but they aren't matched by the other tracks. It's possible the changes come from David Zippel, who hadn't worked on Disney films in the past. That's probably a simplistic look, however. Zippel is an accomplished composer, yet the songs never really find the right tone. The music is professional, however, and most of the issues come from comparisons to predecessors. It isn't easy to keep topping music that remains beloved long after its original release.
My three-and-a-half year old daughter Elise watched this movie. What did she think?
For the first 20 minutes, Elise was engaged and enjoyed the baby Pegasus. Once Hercules reached Earth and the story started rolling, she quickly lost interest. A few days later, Elise responded to my questions about liking it with a succinct "no". She did call out the baby Hercules as a favorite part, so she may have enjoyed a Muppet Babies-like spin-off. One exception was the Ricky Martin video for "No Importa La Distancia", his Spanish-language version of "Go the Distance". I checked it out since there were few DVD extras, and she requested it two more times. It's hard to compete with a cheesy ballad sung in a different language. I will say that it's a lot better than Michael Bolton's rendition over the credits.
Has Disney made good use of this film in its theme parks?
Unfortunately, the characters from Hercules haven't enjoyed a long-standing place in the theme parks like Simba, Belle, and others. They used to appear at meet and greets but have been retired due to lack of interest. A "Hercules Victory Parade" appeared for a year at Disneyland in 1997, but it's faded into the background. While it's an okay movie, the fact that Disney hasn't retained the characters in the parks shows its lack of staying power. They created a straight-to-video sequel and TV series, so it was hardly a big loser. The burden of high expectations is too much for this movie to overcome. It's worth checking out for animation fans, but it doesn't rank among the must-see Disney releases.
Next week, I'll venture across the pond to China and check out Mulan.