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Hercules

By Angie Drobnic

July 8, 1997:  The beauty of Greek mythology is its horror. Medea, for instance, took revenge on her husband Jason (of Argonaut fame) by killing not only his illicit lover but the two sons Medea herself bore him as well. The hero of The Iliad, Agamemnon, killed his daughter Iphegeneia to appease the gods; his wife Clytemnestra killed him in retaliation; their son Orestes then killed her to avenge his father's death. On the racy side, Hephaestus fell in love with Athena and literally chased her around Mount Olympus, though he never did catch her. But he did, um, prematurely ejaculate, and the semen that fell to earth gave birth to the god Erichthonius.

So you can see why I was nervous about Walt Disney Inc. taking on the Classics. Disney's bastardization of fairy tales (Cinderella), literature (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and even factual history (Pocahontas) is well known and hardly bears repeating. Disney's latest, Hercules, naturally takes liberties with its subject matter: In their hands, Hercules morphs from the bastard offspring of one of Zeus' many, many affairs into the legitimate son of Zeus and wife Hera. His famous feats are no longer punishment for killing his children during a fit of insanity; they instead become a way for Hercules to reunite with his godly family after being changed into a mortal by the dastardly underworld god Hades. Disney has taken the traditional Hercules mythology and sanitized it--with hydrochloric acid and a sandblaster.

But strangely enough, it works beautifully. Hercules becomes an American überhero, a Michael Jordan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Jenner all wrapped up into one. He has the requisite--yet hilarious and utterly original--pals: flighty flying horse Pegasus and crusty mentor Phil, a half-man half-goat hero coach. As Hercules fights his way towards immortality, he even discovers the most delightful lady love in recent Disney history. Meg (short for Megara) is a cross between Seinfeld's Elaine and Carole Lombard: sexy and smart, but wary and world-wise. Meg even has a past and is reluctantly helping Hades bring about the downfall of heroic Herc, after the Fates decree that only Hercules can foil Hades' plans for control of the Universe.

The action-packed yet highly coherent plot is animated with a stellar touch. Particularly well rendered is the many-headed Hydra beast. The city where Hercules gets his notoriety, Thebes, aka "The Big Olive," has been turned into an ancient NYC, complete with a fickle populace that labels Herc a zero to hero and back again in the blink of an eye. Tabloid culture, commercialism and hero worship (no pun intended) become targets again and again for the filmmakers' subtle and witty savagery.

Yet the jabs are intelligent diversions from the story's sophisticated moral, which is overcoming desolation in the face of extreme disappointment. Hercules feels he has never fit in on earth and yearns to return home to Mount Olympus. His friend Phil is weary of training and putting his heart into heroes who always seem to fail him--like Achilles and his damned heel. Meg struggles with her servitude to Hades and her betrayal of the man she loves, when it was an old boyfriend who betrayed her to Hades in the first place. Each one's problems highlight the others, and the emotions consistently ring true.

Obvious care has been put into the music numbers, particularly the Las Vegas-style gospel choir that narrates in song the transitions from scene to scene. James Woods proves himself--yet again--to be the most underrated actor working today with his canny, scene-stealing voicing of the nefarious Hades. The satyric trainer Phil is wonderfully brought to life by Danny DeVito, while a more perfect voice for Meg could not be supplied by anyone but the relatively unknown Susan Egan.

Hercules is Disney's best since the magnificent Beauty and the Beast. Their marketing is super savvy: Suck in the crowds like The Lion King did with a super-macho theme, then throw in the sophistication and sensitivity of the more chick-oriented flicks like Beauty. So I'll quit my griping about Hercules not going berserk and killing his family. Those who want the gore and drama of the true Greek Classics will have to go to the original source, but for a really killer Disney flick, Hercules is it.

--Angie Drobnic







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