He’s the strongest man in the world and a darn nice young fellow to boot. “Hercules,” Disney’s latest summer animation, certainly displays the muscle and charm to dominate family and kid biz for the season. It’s a winning tall tale, cleverly told and wonderfully voiced that should bolster the company franchise following the box office erosions of “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Drawing liberally from Greek mythology, the film relates how Olympian gods Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar) begat the ever-so-cute Hercules. Meanwhile, lord of the underworld Hades (James Woods) has been told by the Fates that the only thing that could undo his plans to vanquish the folks on Mt. Olympus is Zeus’ spawn.
So, he dispatches his reptilian henchmen Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer) to kidnap the tyke and put poison in his milk bottle. Of course, they botch the job, but the child drinks enough of the venom to render him mortal. As flesh and blood, he cannot live among the gods, and grows up unaware of his true lineage.
The legend has been tidied up for general audiences, retaining the era, setting, characters and Herculean strength. And there’s considerably more humor and music than one would find in the vintage Steve Reeves or contempo Kevin Sorbo incarnations of the character.
The narrative thrust of the Disneyized version is that Hercules learns as a young man that he’s adopted and goes to the temple to pray for a clue to his past. Zeus gives him the lowdown and tells him he must become a hero to be reinstated with the gods. To that end, he sends him to the satyr Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), aka Phil, for grueling Rocky-style training to prepare him to combat all manner of evil.
Here, the source of peril is not human frailty but all manner of mythical monsters — and bad girl Megara (Susan Egan), aka Meg, who’s really a good gal forced to do Hades’ bidding to secure her freedom.
Triumph in the field of battle accords Hercules the hero status of a modern athlete, and soon everything from Grecian urns to sandals bear his likeness. This humorous barb about product placement seems rather misplaced, considering the studio’s mastery and thoroughness in marketing cross-fertilization of its family movies.
The bigger-than-life nature of the ancient myths make them both ripe for parody and ideal for the kind of freewheeling musical adaptation that’s been Disney’s stock in trade for six decades. As in “Aladdin,” the melding of character animation with the screen personae of the actors voicing the roles provides forceful and amusing entertainment, particularly in DeVito’s turn as a physical trainer and the acid wit Woods brings to his villainous role.
The song score favors tunes that propel the story rather than focusing on character enhancement. That provides the yarn with a zing missing from the more recent, sober-sided ani features.
The music itself, while serviceable, is not at all distinctive. Turning a Greek chorus into a Motown quintet is a clever idea but needs something more soulful than the recurring ditty “The Gospel Truth.” There’s simply not a song in the piece that has you humming as you exit the theater, and ballads such as “Go the Distance” will require aggressive repetition to register as playlist material.
Composer Alan Menken — who enlivened the form when he was enlisted for “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 — is hitting too many tired notes in his sixth animated score. It may be time to muster a new musical sensibility to bring a little “Heigh-Ho” to the genre.
Directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who’ve collaborated on “Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” here combine smooth, state-of-the-art animation with a funky razzledazzle. They bring “Hercules” the vitality and insouciance that make Disney an undisputed champ in the arena.