Before the opening credits, Disney’s pointless new animated feature, Hercules, has dispensed enough mythological disinformation to hammer into the wee ones’ heads a version of the ancient Greek belief system that comfortingly parallels the Judeo-Christian one: Good god Zeus resides high in the clouds in a shimmering pink-blue-yellow eternal morning called Olympus, and evil Hades inhabits the dank, swirling underworld and controls a troop of fanged imps. The half-god/half-mortal Herc is caught in between, taking time out only to become the Michael Jordan of ancient Thebes.
Never mind the conflating of Greek and Roman terms, never mind the Sleeping Beauty-type coup Hades pulls at baby Hercules’ birth, never mind the five Muses, never even mind that the point of all this frenzied showboating is entirely invented—if Disney’s writers didn’t think Hercules’ own story was good enough (or savory enough) for children, they could have thought of something that made sense to a young audience. The Lion King, distasteful as its aggressively patriarchal message was, told its original story neatly and entertainingly, with time out for some swell tunes.
These movies and all that goes with them shape kids’ lives, for better or worse, and where the pre-Little Mermaid features basically cooled down Charles Perrault’s decorous 17th-century rewrites, now Disney’s just starting to make stuff up. My 6-year-old nephew will tell anyone who’ll listen that he’s seen The Lion King 10 times (which is hardly a record among patient representatives of the video generation), and he’ll endlessly identify the stickers on his dresser: “PumbaaScarNalaTimonalsoPumbaa…” If any kids feel the same attachment to Hercules’ out-to-please cast, they’ll win a bonus prize of complete ignorance about another culture, something that so far only Disney’s live-action features offer. “PainPanicMegaraPhiloctetes…” Who are these people?
Pain and Panic are Hades’ bumbling emissaries, entrusted to wreak all kinds of shape-changing havoc on little Herc while the superbaby is still vulnerable. They’re the comic relief, somewhat mitigating Hades’ bone-deep nastiness; all the dignity is on the side of good, although P&P crack wise just as often and with the same cavalier anachronisms that betray the filmmakers’ distrust of their youthful audience’s intelligence. Megara (“Meg”) is the love interest and Hades’ unwilling tool of vengeance, and “Phil”…perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning.
The five writers have bestowed legitimacy upon Hercules, naming Hera as his mother and relegating poor Alcmene to the role of Herc’s adoptive mortal mom, a farmer’s fat wife. The babylove in Hercules’ early scenes is out of control; the impossibly chubby, dimpled infant toys ecstatically with his equally adorable little friend Pegasus (put your Bulfinch’s away; it’s going to be a long night) in his celestial bassinet.
In his quest to rule the worlds, Hades (a role savored by James Woods like a gourmand tucking into the first daube of winter) sends Pain and Panic, who despite their monikers are indistinguishable, to force a potion into the little toughie that will make him mortal. But he misses a drop, and is therefore—who knew?—half mortal. Deposited at the doorstep of kindly farmers, Herc grows into a sturdy but directionless teenager who may have the biggest calves in Greece but is shunned by the local boys. Unable to harness his great strength, he seeks out Phil (Danny DeVito), a crusty old ex-trainer of a thousand Burgess Meredith roles. Herc’s mission: to become a hero and thus be re-godified, to reside on Olympus with the rest of the ichor-blooded elite.
If Hercules isn’t just a cynical exercise in merchandise-pushing disguised as a parody of merchandise-pushing, then it really does expect children to relate to this insolent premise, or at least to root for the hero’s success. If they can’t hope to become gods, well, it couldn’t happen to a nicer celebrity.
As Hercules begins to test his new, directed power, he becomes the toast of Greece, with his own line of Air Herc sandals, action figures, and a whole shop of his merchandise sporting the exact same sign (“The HERCULES Store”) that now hangs below signs for the nation’s Disney Stores. He learns that being a hero isn’t about doing good with your muscles—though I don’t see what’s so trivial about lifting a fallen column off a crushed child—but with your heart. When he offers a sacrifice for the soul of the luscious Meg, a damned spirit forced to do Hades’ bidding and seduce Herc into mortal bondage, he gets godded and returned to his rightful place on Olympus. No labors, no lions, no marriages—just one evil centaur who’s more bully than agent of death. If this story is meant to be a version of those fairy tales that reassure children that they were really born to doting royalty and not the squabbling Lipschitzes, it has a funny way of showing it.
Based on Gerald Scarfe’s lucid, curvilinear drawings, Hercules has a clean, bright look and the strong lines of urn drawings and soaring columns. As with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it seems Disney has been trying to fit its animation style to its subject—the lush, overripe, French look of last year’s movie would never have done for the spare Grecian expanses at play here. In its quiet moments, Hercules can be quite beautiful: Meg’s big number, “I Won’t Say I’m in Love,” sung with encouragement from the girl-group Greek chorus of the Muses, makes a sweet and tender contrast to her brittle, smartass dialogue; immediately afterward comes a scene in which Hercules works out in an empty arena under a gentle twilit sky.
But most of the action is so frantic, and the grinning showmanship so phony, that they actually force the audience to grow stiff and detached in response. (There is also a battle with a thousand-headed Hydra it would behoove the tinies to miss, and some of that liquid-looking computer animation is as contrived as it is scary.) The film has no sweep, no emotional pull, just a series of plot peaks and valleys coarsely proclaimed and loudly reiterated by all.
We feel no sympathy for Hercules, because he has no talent, just god-given brawn, and as for his ascendancy to godhood, he was born a god, an aristocrat of the ancient world. This isn’t a goal the audience can aspire to, nor would thinking people wish such luck on a boob who has not more than a good-natured superstrong sideshow. For all its panicked pursuit of energy, Hercules is heartless, and static as a frieze.CP