For many people “Hercules” might not be a return to form by Disney, but at the very least it has them doing what they are known for: Producing good family films. Though “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” may be one of Disney’s best films ever produced and “Pocahontas” is no slouch either, many families left the theater confounded. After all, for Disney films these were far more serious in subject matter and didn’t have the traditional happy endings you’d expect from them. In terms of quality there is no doubt that “Hercules” lags far behind those films in ambition and success, but then this is certainly a more enjoyable movie. The colors are nice, the story isn’t overly complicated, and the title character is very likable and easy root for.
The story of “Hercules” is based off the Greek myth that so many people know by heart. Parents need not worry though, as Disney as careful to keep out some of the more questionable elements of the myth so as not to offend (there is no “Hellfire” type song here). It involves Hercules being kidnapped as a baby and turned mortal. To regain his god status he has to prove himself be a “true hero.” It’s probably good timing then that the god who wanted him dead in the first place has decided to throw him as many monsters to defeat as possible. So the guy gets to kill monsters, save the city, and even win over what appears to be an early feminist named Megura (her friend’s call her Meg…or they would if she had any friends). She likes who she refers to as Wonder Boy but she is a reluctant enemy.
The main villain of the film is Hades, who simply wants to get out of Hell and live in Heaven. From my perspective that’s understandable. Where the film might be confusing is that while Hercules may be a likable guy, it’s ultimately Hades who is the break out character in the film. His dialog flies fast and his wit is sharp. He controls fire and is extremely threatening. Heck, he even changes color and acts like a mood ring sometimes. He is voiced by James Woods, who gives such a riveting performance that we have flashbacks of Robin Williams as the Genie in “Aladdin.” If you are making a list of great performances in animation I would put Woods performance as Hades near the top of the list. Still, for as much fun as this all is “Hercules” is ultimately not a film that challenges the norm in any real way.
With the exception of Hades the characters are pretty generic and there is rarely a sense that they will be classic Disney characters in the years to come. The animation style is certainly nice to look at but it doesn’t have the fine detail that made “Beauty & the Beast” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” so mesmerizing to look at. I should also mention that for a musical the songs by Alan Menkin are largely forgettable this time around, only producing two catchy tunes (and they are tunes I’m not certain you’ll be humming for very long). If any other studio had released this I might have found the effort to be more impressive, but being a Disney film hurts it a little. Disney has raised the stakes so high in the last five years that “Hercules” comes off looking like a day off rather than a genuine effort. It’s good, but this is something the Disney animators can sleep walk through. Hopefully the next time around they’ll return to challenging themselves.