Disney's Hercules is a show-tune-spouting, buff demigod bent on self-improvement (and world domination).

By Charles Taylor

Published July 27, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

movie critics who complain about the movies' pop bastardization of literature have to tread a thin, tricky line. Sometimes the pleasure that a movie adaptation delivers may have next to nothing to do with its source. I adore Carol Reed's musical "Oliver!" though I'd never claim that it much resembles the Dickens novel. Knowing that writing "Doctor Zhivago" could have cost Boris Pasternak his life makes David Lean's reduction of the novel to historical melodrama seem fairly despicable, though the movie's grandiosity can be pretty entertaining on its own terms. The fun of movies is often how they convince us even when we know better.

That said, the Walt Disney Company's new film of "Hercules," its 35th animated feature, is pretty appalling. About the best thing I can say for it is that it's not in Disney's sadistic bathos mode; I'm grateful that no little kids will be upset by it the way they were by "The Lion King" and the more florid moments of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." I went in prepared for cheeriness and uplift, for crummy songs and bad physical comedy, and I wasn't disappointed.

And still, I wasn't ready. I was unprepared, not only for the cheesiness of the whole concept, but for the sheer boneheaded confidence of it all. "Hercules" goes about its business with the aplomb of the truly corrupt. The picture vulgarizes some of the greatest Greek myths down to the level of "In Style" magazine. This buff, golden-haired Hercules wouldn't be out of place selling ab toners on late-night infomercials. It's not so much that the filmmakers have edited the adventures of the great Greek hero. In the original stories, Hercules killed people in murderous rages, even killed his own wife and children while under a spell of madness sent by Hera, hardly appropriate stuff in a kids' movie (though considering the emotionally overwrought mayhem that Disney has subjected its young audiences to in the past, I wouldn't be surprised). What's dumbfounding about "Hercules" is the way the filmmakers turned the stories written by Ovid and Euripides and Apollodorus into a little self-empowerment lesson. Maybe we can't all be as strong as Hercules, but we can be just as brave and as true to ourselves. Now go play nice.

In the movie, the infant Hercules is snatched from Mount Olympus by the minions of Hades (the voice of James Woods, whose malevolent vaudeville turn is the only good thing in this movie). Raised as a mortal on earth, he grows into an awkward adolescent (Tate Donovan) whose mixture of clumsiness and strength is always getting him into trouble. Poor Hercules. He feels out of place. Luckily for him, he's the son of Zeus (Rip Torn), and he can become a god again if only he can prove himself a hero. To that end, he enlists the aid of Philotes (Danny DeVito), a satyr who functions the same way Burgess Meredith did in the "Rocky" movies, as a trainer with one horn alerted for the hero who will bring him to the big time. Under Phil's sweaty tutelage, Herc carves out a physique and a high Q rating. The only hitch is that the gal he falls for, Megara (called Meg here and voiced by Susan Egan), is under the bidding of Hades, who tries to enlist her in a scheme to destroy Hercules.

The first few minutes show the beautiful people -- you know, the gods -- having a celestial garden party to celebrate the birth of Hercules, and it looks like a cross between a Caesars Palace soiree and a drag-bar theatrical. The movie is narrated in song by five muses who've been drawn and vocalized to look and sound like a black female vocal group (don't get your hopes up -- we're talking show tunes here). This "Hercules" is pure show biz, perfect if you've ever dreamed of taking your kids to, say, a Friars roast.

What's even more schticky than the unremittingly broad and witless physical comedy (the pratfalls and head bonks and ass kickings) is the movie's glitzy inspirational side. Young Hercules flies through the air on Pegasus, singing, "I will beat the odds/I will go the distance." He's not making a vow, he's rehearsing a goddamn acceptance speech. The film purports to parody the mother company with Hades' crack "It's a small underworld after all" and the way Hercules' image is used to sell urns and plates and sandals. But the gags land squarely in phony, show-biz, see-what-good-sports-we-are territory. Try laughing at the Hercules action-figure jokes if you're seeing the movie in a mall and know that as soon as the lights come up your kids will drag you to the Disney Store to buy -- a Hercules action figure!

Most depressing about all this is that "Hercules" will be many kids' first exposure to Greek mythology, and it doesn't give them any sense of wonder or daring or tragedy, even on a corrupted pop level. It offers nothing of what has enthralled generations of kids in the storybook "D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths" or, when they're a bit older, in Edith Hamilton's "Mythology." When Hercules gives up his chance to become a god to stay with his beloved Meg, his sacrifice is turned into a you-can-have-it-all triumph -- he beats the bad guy, gets the girl and he still has his good looks. (There was more of a sense of sacrifice and tragic fall in "Superman II," when Superman relegates himself to a life as Clark Kent so he can be with Lois Lane.)

"Hercules" makes sense, though, not just as an artifact of the crasser aspects of our star-fucking culture, but as another move in Disney's ongoing scheme to make the world over in its image. That agenda was at its baldest in "The Lion King" -- the quintessential Disney animation not just because it perfected the studio's longtime sadism toward its young audience (you can really hammer kids with computer animation and Dolby sound; the little boy in front of me who screamed and buried his head in his father's chest during the death of Simba's father is one of my most miserable movie-going memories), but because it epitomized the company's Disney-|ber-alles agenda.

Disney's theme parks promise a place where the terrors and complications of the real world have not just been eradicated, they never existed in the first place. For the characters in "The Lion King," the danger came from straying outside the kingdom into the bad part of the jungle where "they" lived ("they" being the villains, who sounded unmistakably black). To be safe, make sure you never leave your protected sphere. The catch was that almost all the animals who were supposedly safe in the jungle's high-rent district were, sooner or later, food for its lion leaders. That's nature's way, the movie reassured us. What a message! "The Lion King" showed that Disney's attitude toward its audience was the same as its attitude to all the myths and legends and stories it has remade over the years. To Disney, everything is meat, admitted to the kingdom to make it stronger and perpetuate its life. It's a small world, after all.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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