Well, this will teach me to open my big mouth.
After the release of my Top 10 Animated Films list (available here) last week, a few conversations emerged on my personal Facebook page, all of which were quite nice and opened up positive discourse (something I’m always aiming for) but a few films came up in the discussions that I missed off the list.
Naturally, I couldn’t list all the animated films I liked, the post itself is already fairly long without adding any more titles to it, but one film, in particular, was mentioned that I thought deserved further evaluation and that film was 1997’s Hercules, so here I am, no-one can say that I am not a man of the people.
‘Underrated’ is a word banded about a fair bit these days, I even used it myself to describe The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it is a term that I think is sometimes misused. How you rate a film is entirely personal to you, after all, but I generally accept that when people say ‘underrated’ they mean compared to similar works, which is why I believe I was justified in using it to describe Hunchback, and why I also think it’s equally acceptable to use the term to describe this film.
I talked a lot about the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance’ (which is a bugger to spell over and over again, I’ll tell you) in my Top 10 run-down, and I anticipate that I will talk more about it when I get up to it during my ‘Evolution of Animation’ series (which I’m still working on, despite the lay-off) but for those unaware, here’s a brief primer on what people mean when they talk about the ‘Disney Renaissance’:
In the late 1980s following a string of critical and commercial disappointments that had severely wounded the studios reputation as the kings of animated features; Disney began work on The Little Mermaid, taking the studio back to its roots of developing fairy tales, the film was their biggest hit in decades, and breathed new life into the ailing studio.
Over the next decade, Disney would follow up its successes with a string of instant classics like Beauty and the Beast in 1991, Aladdin in 1992, and The Lion King in 1994, it seemed the studio was untouchable, it was producing the best content it had arguably ever produced, and making a bigger splash at the box office than ever.
Naturally, this hot streak had to end and end it did around the turn of the Millenium, many accept Tarzan as the last Renaissance film, but I would argue that Hercules is the right final curtain for the era, but despite its many successes around the world, there are a few films released in this era that slip through the cracks when discussing Disney’s best-ever films.
It is natural that when you have monster hits like Beauty or Aladdin that other films will simply exist in their shadow, but it seems to be the case that some of Disney’s best work during the Renaissance is marginalised while the same suspects are celebrated; there may be an argument that this might be to do with some of the films like Mulan and Pocahontas revolve around minority leads, but that’s a hornet’s nest I’m going to avoid.
In truth, I don’t know why Hercules isn’t more fondly remembered. Maybe it’s because it was the point where the Renaissance formula was becoming more visible, and audiences were already wanting to move on, but it’s as good an example of how the formula can work like any other film of the time.
It’s a very vibrant film, with many different uses of colour palettes to create a well-rounded balance to the world it is representing, for a good example of this, look at the differences between how Olympus and the Underworld are drawn. Olympus is lively and colourful, whereas the Underworld is fittingly cold and lifeless. It means that the designs never get repetitive and boring.
The character designs are also strong, and very memorable too if you have seen the film, I’d wager you could recall at least some of the designs. Because they all differ so much from each other, it means that there’s no potential for characters to blend together in your mind, there is a distinction in each character, not only in how they look, but how they sound.
Which brings me nicely to the voice performances in the film, which are perhaps some of the strongest of the entire era. I mentioned before how Robin Williams performance as the Genie laid the groundwork for the casting choices in the Renaissance era, it led to the casting of recognisable comedy voices, who came along to put their spin on the material.
Hercules boasts two particularly strong voice performances from such people, Danny DeVito as Philoctetes (or Phil to his friends) and James Woods as Hades, both of whom bring their frenetic energies to their performances, and both add colour to the films cheeks character-wise.
Rather than being the typical sneering Disney villain, Hades is made into a cynical, wise-cracking nihilist in Woods’ hands, turning a typically villainous character into a lively interesting one who is simultaneously easy and impossible to dislike.
DeVito brings his usual charms to proceedings as a pint-sized mentor to the stars Phil, a centaur with small-man syndrome, it’s a role that is perfect for DeVito’s unique personality, his distinctive tones bring a new dimension to his character, and elevate him above side-character status, just like Williams did for the Genie.
The whole cast is strong, to be honest, Tate Donavan plays the accident-prone hero to a tee, and Susan Egan helps Meg transcend the usual trappings of ‘Disney love-interest’ to make her a well-rounded character in her own right.
Finally, what would a Renaissance-era Disney film be without a score by Alan Menken? Probably a lot less interesting, let’s be honest, and Menken duly delivers once again here. Even though the songs don’t reach the heights set years previous by his work on Little Mermaid or Aladdin, but the songs are still memorable and have that quality of most great Menken songs of being stuck in your head for days. He is the man who scored a generations childhood, and he’s always a gem no matter the film he’s involved in.
In conclusion then, although it is lost beneath the sea of Disney classics, Hercules is still a worthy addition to the Renaissance canon, and signifies what I think is the last hurrah of that generation; everything that came after it would play around with the formula more by introducing more computer-generated animation (although that is used here for the hydra) and this is the last film that feels like it belongs in the same boat as Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. It’s not as well-remembered, but it is well worth your time, especially if you’re in the market for Renaissance-era Disney, but have tired of the usual suspects.