Disney have obviously been at the forefront of adapting, sanitising and/or pillaging myth and fairytales* for many moons now. And it seems, especially commercially-speaking, that when they keep the stories happy, and ensure that it’s very easy to understand who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’, people are pleased.
However, I feel as though audiences aren’t too willing to let the company stray very far from that formula.
And part of me thinks Hercules might have been an early step toward less binary representations of good and evil, and maybe pointed toward an attempted change. It’s a change that I think comes to at least one end point with Atlantis. (Especially if I include Treasure Planet in that progression).
Hercules is probably closer to Aladdin in some ways, and watching it again much later, I can see why it did the usual big numbers. This time around, I probably focused on different things, especially the artwork and character design, though the story is a fun adventure and I think the liberties it takes with the family of Gods works quite well to make things a little more kid-friendly.
You also get plenty of exaggeration in character movement and faces, to keep that slapstick front and centre. As you might expect with Disney, there are also plenty of ‘modern’ pop culture references, with the Air Jordan stuff working best for me.
I want to come back to where I see a reasonably non-typical Disney character moving the needle toward morally grey, but for now I’m sticking with the visuals. I loved the sense of scale in the film – there’s a whole heap of extreme wide shots and towering structures, stunning locations and colours, typically beautiful Disney stuff.
But there’s definitely a Mediterranean look to the countryside and the character designs, which were based on work by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. I remember him most from Pink Floyd’s The Wall and you can definitely see his touch even in the finished, more rounded/tidier Disney designs. I’m pretty sure this is a sketch he did for Hades:
To switch to the cast for a moment, Danny Devito stood out and so did James Woods as Hades. Not sure what the actor was like back in the late 1990s but he seems to get attention for different things nowadays. Susan Egan (who I usually associate with Lin from Spirited Away), is also great as Meg; and that’s who I wanted to mention earlier.
Meg is a character with motivations that are not so clear cut at first. I’m not sure how younger viewers would have responded to her, but in a way she becomes the most interesting character in the film and it feels like she’s one example of cautious steps by Disney directors to shift away from the ‘kids’ category, for at least some of the time.
In any event, I enjoyed Hercules and one of my only concerns was the Muses… On one hand, the designs and animation upon the clay pots were great but the gospel didn’t work for me because it seemed somehow borderline tokenism? I dunno, can’t figure it out yet. Maybe I’m off-base, and I’d like to be wrong there.
* And other stories, of course.