In 1995 the animation world was rocked to its core when the plucky young studio Pixar released Toy Story, the first feature film to be animated entirely using computer generated imagery. As impressive as the technological advancements were, the real success of Toy Story lay in its whip smart humour that worked at two levels – there was loads for kids to enjoy, but the themes of insecurity and jealousy combined with a perfect script brimming with wit meant that adults flocked to see it, too. It was critically and commercially adored. Hercules feels like Disney’s response to this sea change in the world of animation, as the sincerity of Pocahontas and Hunchback felt out of place in the brave new world of sharp, multi-audience humour, so their next film, only two years after Pixar stormed the scene, is an attempt (sometimes successful) at making a more Pixarian film. Not that there was financial rivalry – Toy Story was partly funded by Disney – yet there seems to be a need for a creative response to the formidable challenge launched by Woody and co. Hercules is an admirable but tonally confused attempt at this, hampered by the fact that it is still, at heart, a Disney film.
Ancient Greece is a setting ripe for humour – the stories that came out of this time of heroes, monsters and Gods are frequently bizarre, rude, violent; in short, always exciting. This is the perfect set up for Pixar-style dual-level humour that appeals to kids (fighting monsters! comedy sidekicks!) and adults (Narcissus jokes! Oedipus references!) alike. To some extent Hercules succeeds at this, playfully messing around with mythology and slipping in (then) modern references; ‘Zero to Hero’ is a great example of this, full of throwaway visual gags during a big musical number about how great Herc is. A lot of it is likely to go over the heads of younger audiences, but it has some fun to things to say about celebrity culture. James Woods as Hades, Lord of the Underworld, is similarly anachronistic, a kind of villainous version of Robin Williams’ genie, only a lot more sarcastic. Then, there are two OTT henchmen for Hades, lots of slapstick and physical comedy, plus Pegasus – a precursor to Tangled’s Maximus in terms of anthropomorphised horses – all to keep the littl’uns happy. So to an extent, Disney aimed for Pixar and hit the target. They were just a few rings wide of the bullseye.
One of the problems is anachronism overkill, where their humour just aims to be too modern and silly, thus sacrificing some of the sincerity which makes Disney stand out at its best. There’s Hermes, a wise talking East Coast American who frequently sasses Zeus, and Philoctetes who is a wise talking East Coast American who frequently sasses Hercules. It’s as if everyone in Ancient Greece is Billy Crystal. Phil, in particular is problematic. Played by Danny De Vito, he’s a lecherous, world weary satyr who’s seen too many heroes to get too enthusiastic about the latest muscle-bound, wide-eyed wannabe. But with all his talk about ‘dames’, ‘oy veys’ and chasing after nymphs he feels too sarcastic and gimmicky to register emotionally or comedically. One Timon or Pumbaa is fine, but one too many and you have the gargoyles in Hunchback. The chasing after nymphs is a great example of Hercules’ other problem; it often makes light of some really horrendous stories. Satyrs traditionally were entirely sexual creatures and chasing nymphs would definitely have rape connotations in Greek mythology. The less said about Meg being caught by a centaur and referring to ‘yes means no’ the better. Admittedly, children are unlikely to understand casual references to rape, but it does mean that some of the jokes jar with audiences who have ever read any Greek myths – made more galling by the thought that the film makers certainly had.
Hercules’ other major issue is that in spite of its aspirations to post-modern wit and being cooler than your average Disney, it remains very much a product of the studio that brought you The Little Mermaid and Bambi. It follows a fairly generic hero’s journey structure from awkward origins, through training and downfall to ultimate victory via a troublesome romance, but it doesn’t really have anything more to it than that. Meg is ostensibly one of Disney’s new brand of heroines – smart, independent, witty – but she doesn’t have anything approaching an interesting character. She is passed between two men, a situation she only ended up in because another man betrayed her. This isn’t to disparage Disney at all – clearly I’m a fan – but Hercules is branded with the Mickey Mouse logo in spite of an apparent desire to be a little bit different. The result is a tonal awkwardness that mixes sass with sugar and neither fully works.
This uneven tone is not helped by the songs. The music largely amazing, an upbeat, gospel infused soundtrack where every song actually compliments the narrative instead of feeling extraneous. However, there is no seeming logical, narrative or artistic reason for having the Muses be gospel singers. The Muses act as a Greek Chorus that inform the audience of the progress of the hero, only here they are a quintet of divas belting out the tunes as if they just discovered the soundtrack to Sister Act. It works, just about, but makes no sense. What makes this worthy of comment is that none of the other songs fit into this musical genre. Hercules’ song of self-realisation, ‘Go The Distance,’ is a standard Disney ballad a la ‘Out There’ or ‘Part of Your World,’ but Phil’s training song feels way more like a 1930s Hollywood musical while Meg’s love song wouldn’t feel out of place in Grease. There’s no consistency to the sound of the film, unlike the best Disneys, and it feels like the song-writers didn’t quite know what they wanted the film to be. Which is fitting for a film that doesn’t ever quite feel comfortable in its own skin, torn between the brave new world of post-Pixar humour and the classical storytelling of Second Golden Age Disney.