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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 06/26/1997, B: Jeffrey Gantz,

Greek gift

Disney's Hercules is a heroic effort

by Jeffrey Gantz

HERCULES. Directed by John Musker & Ron Clements. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by David Zippel. With the voices of Tate Donovan, Susan Egan, James Woods, Danny DeVito, Matt Frewer, Bobcat Goldthwait, Rip Torn, Samantha Eggar, Paul Shaffer, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Barrie, Charlton Heston, Lillias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, and Vaneese Thomas. A Walt Disney Pictures release. At the Copley Place, the Fresh Pond, and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

"Long ago, in the faraway land of ancient Greece" -- that's how Hercules begins, in a museum, with Charlton Heston droning on in stentorian tones that make Alistair Cooke sound like Betty Boop. But Mr. Patriarch doesn't get far before the hip, hip-shaking Muse quintet on a black-figure vase that depicts Hercules throttling the Nemean lion break in: "He's makin' this story sound like some Greek tragedy"; "Lighten up, dude"; "We'll take it from here, darling." Charlton retreats with a growly "You go, girl," and after comedy Muse Thalia has volunteered to make sweet music with "Hunkules," the ladies whip the meander off the vase and turn it into a Busby Berkeley staircase, down which they sashay while expounding, Motown girl-group style, the "Gospel Truth" of how Zeus zapped the Titans and Hercules was born. Barely 100 seconds old and already Disney's 35th full-length animated feature is the sharpest, most entertaining movie of the year.


Also, the Hercules soundtrack.


By the end of its 91 minutes this Greek/Judeo-Christian comedy with African-American chorus is one of the best Disney animations ever. Directed by John Musker & Ron Clements, the creative team responsible for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Hercules is a dizzying chariot ride with pointed commentary that mocks even Disney's own merchandising. The Hydra makes the Jurassic Park T. rexes look like pet lizards; the quartet of Titans -- Rock, Lava, Ice, and Tornado -- are nightmarish enough to have their own comic book (the Ice Titan puts Batman & Robin's Mr. Freeze to shame). Disney also comes up with its first truly street-smart romantic heroine.

And the story doesn't deviate too drastically from what's been handed down by Homer and Pindar, Sophocles and Euripides. We start on Mount Olympus, where proud parents Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar) are celebrating Herc's birth; the party's crashed by Hades (James Woods), who's steamed up because Zeus made him lord of a bunch of stiffs (okay, this part of the plot is lifted from Sleeping Beauty). The Fates tell Hades he'll have a shot at overthrowing Zeus in 18 years, during a planetary alignment, but not if Herc is still around ("Is this kid gonna mess up my takeover bid or what?"). So Hades sends his two henchthings, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), to do Herc in. They screw up and Herc winds up on earth as the adopted child of Amphitryon (Hal Holbrook) and Alcmene (Barbara Barrie), but his real dad lets him know that he can regain immortality and join the gods on Olympus if he becomes a true hero.

No problem -- after hooking up with winged horse Pegasus and acquiring a grumpy personal trainer, the nymph-chasing satyr-to-the-stars Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), he makes it to Thebes (the "Big Olive") and shoots to the top of the charts ("Bless my soul, Herc was on a roll/Person of the Week in every Greek opinion poll"), drop-kicking the Nemean lion through Doric-column goalposts, reducing the Erymanthian boar to pork chops, and opening "The Hercules Store" (featuring action figures, Air-Herc sandals, a Herculade sports drink, and the "Buns of Bronze" 30-minute workout scroll). He and Pegasus even get their hand/hoofprints imprinted in cement.

It's not all baklava. Herc falls for a titian-tressed Jean Arthur/Mae West combo named Megara ("My friends call me Meg, at least they would if I had any friends"), to the dismay of Phil (who doesn't want his boy breaking training) and Peg (a hero's best buddy should be his horse, right?). Meg turns out to be working for Hades -- she sold him her soul to save her boyfriend, who promptly ran off with some bit of Spartan spanakopita. Hades, still bent on his "real-estate deal," lures Herc into battle with the 30-headed Hydra (whose stupefying computer choreography is a match for the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King). Worst of all, Zeus tells Herc that all his exploits still haven't made him a true hero -- for that he must look into his heart.

When he does so, of course he finds Meg. To save her, Hercules agrees not to block Hades's Olympian takeover; when Hades defaults, Herc comes to the gods' rescue, overcoming the Cyclops and then knocking off the Titans. But it's when he agrees to die in Meg's place, after the Fates have cut her thread, hurling himself into Hades's pit of lost souls to try to bring hers out, that he discovers what makes humans immortal.

As for what makes Hercules different from virtually all of its predecessors, think of it as Looney Tunes Disney. Robin Williams brought that kind of zaniness to Aladdin, but it began and ended with him. Here it starts with the Muses and never quits. Rendering the film's Greek chorus a girl-group quintet was a cross-cultural masterstroke: the ladies move from doo-wop to pop, from Motown to gospel, with no loss of attitude, spoofing sports-hero worship one moment, lecturing Meg on love the next. The pop makes this story contemporary; the gospel makes it timeless.

And the characters make it uproarious. Zeus is one-dimensionally jovial, and Hera has almost no part (the old Disney taboo against mothers again). Hades, on the other hand, wears black lipstick, scarfs worms, and rides in his own Batchariot; his incendiary hair flares from gas-jet blue to inferno red, depending on mood. Otherwise he's just your average sadistic corporate raider, telling Pain and Panic, "Memo to me: maim you after my meeting," greeting Herc's arrival in the nether regions with "It's a small Underworld after all," and generally having more fun than any Disney villain since Cruella DeVil. (If you sit through all the closing credits, you'll find he has the last word, too.) Phil recycles every cliché of the world-weary trainer ("Achilles -- now there was a guy who had it all . . . except for that furshlugginer heel") and invents a few new ones; when Herc sneaks off with Meg, he tracks them down atop Pegasus-as-police-helicopter, with searchlight and megaphone. Peg follows in the hoofprints of Disney's many expressive steeds (the studio has always done better horses than heroes); as a winged foal he droops in the air just like his ancestors in Fantasia.

Megara is no Pollyanna: she calls Herc "Wonder Boy," Phil "Nanny Goat," and Peg "Horsefeathers," and when she discovers Herc hiding out from the groupies in his villa, she exposes him with a sly "What could be behind Curtain No. 1?" Yet she's the one who sacrificed her soul for her worthless boyfriend, and when Herc finally kisses her (on the cheek), she looks like the sun rising over Olympus. Herc himself is no dumb jock; his supervising animator was Andreas Deja, who usually does villains (Beauty's Gaston, Aladdin's Jafar, The Lion King's Scar). Which may explain why he has more personality than the usual Disney beefcake.

Everywhere this film revels in its inspired insanity: baby Herc teething on a thunderbolt; Herc and Peg head-butting and high-fiving; the Muses giving Herc perfect X's (i.e., 10s) as Calliope does a cheerleader split; Herc and Peg zooming past a new constellation, the Seven Year Itch Marilyn Monroe; Herc skipping a stone through a fountain and turning a statue of Venus into the Venus de Milo; the Cyclops kicking Herc around like a hacky-sack; Herc storming into the Underworld atop the three-headed Cerberus; Hermes (David Letterman's Paul Shaffer) playing keyboards. Menken and Clements even sneak themselves into the marketplace scene (they're construction workers), and they give Scar a cameo (hint: Herc is wearing him). They also give the story its own spiffy Greek vases: Herc has only to fire an arrow at an oncoming beast and, voilà!, black-figure boar on a platter. Savvy but without sentiment, and also without cynicism, this is a movie you can see over and over without exhausting it. Hercules may not be the gospel truth about Greek myth, but in a movie summer that seems like a lost world, it sure is good news.

Going the distance

by Jeffrey Gantz

With just six songs, the Hercules soundtrack -- music and score by Alan Menken (who's done all the new Disney animations except for The Lion King), lyrics by David Zippel -- is a Pandora's box, tiny but crammed. After the Muse girl-group quintet have set the stage with a tell-it-like-it-is "The Gospel Truth," the youthful Hercules determines to "Go the Distance" (Roger Bart does the film version, Michael Bolton the single). Zippel's lyrics -- "I'll be there someday/I can go the distance" -- are as bland as Stephen Schwartz's were for Hunchback's "Out There," save for the closing lines; Menken's anthemic march makes it all work. Philoctetes's "One Last Hope" is classic '40s-'50s Broadway, Danny DeVito sounding startlingly like Stubby Kaye.

The Muses' raucous-rocking "Zero to Hero" is a simultaneous celebration and send-up that segues into a double-time call-and-response: "Who put the glad in gladiator? Hercules" (on screen the name gets spelled out in Greek letters, one per shield -- just a single example of the ingenious dovetailing of sight and sound in this number). Megara's "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)" has Susan Egan (the Belle of Disney's Broadway Beauty and the Beast) soaring Ronettes-style over the admonishing Muses ("Face it like a grown-up/When ya gonna own up/That ya got got got it bad?") before she relents and they dissolve into cooing shooby-doos and sha-la-las. The gospel-triumphant closer, "A Star Is Born," plays off the concluding image, Hercules literally going up in lights as Zeus makes him a constellation.

And Menken's score, weaving the songs into its texture, is filled with subtle touches: echoes of Rhapsody in Blue for "The Big Olive"; a wistful section in "Destruction of the Agora" when Hercules bids Amphitryon and Alcmene farewell; yet another nod to Mahler's Third Symphony (Scherzo this time) in "Go the Distance." For the closing "A True Hero" Menken combines "Go the Distance" and "I Won't Say" before letting the Muses reprise the hand-clapping, heaven-storming "A Star Is Born."