In “Hercules,” Disney has found a Grecian formula that promises to be an Olympic-size hit. As the messenger Hermes might say in the lounge-act voice of Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer: “I haven’t seen so much love in a room since Narcissus discovered himself.”
This jovial, musical animated feature - with a rollicking score by Alan Menken and David Zippel - details the Herculean tasks of the legendary able-bodied youth, who was snatched from the heavens as an infant and reared among mortals.
To regain his heavenly status, the grown Hercules (voice of Tate Donovan) must prove himself. He goes into training with a nymphchasing satyr named Phil (Danny DeVito), thence to Thebes to wipe out the pestilence being hurled there by Hades, god of the underworld.
Drawn by Nik Ranieri, Hades is a pallid, sharp-cheeked villain whose blue-flamed brush-cut flares to fiery red when he gets angry. James Woods supplies the voice, although the animator seems to have had Christopher Walken in mind.
The Greek chorus is modern urban gospel, and there is the usual assortment of clever sidekicks and cackling crones. It is perhaps the first time that Bobcat Goldthwait’s irritating voice is perfect, in the mouth of one of a pair of groveling, shape-shifting servants (“Coming, your most lugubriousness!”).
All Disney animation provides a strong link to the child’s universe. In this case, the uncertainty of Hercules’ origins, his adoption anxieties and body he hasn’t quite grown into are metaphors for youthful feelings of awkwardness, inadequacy and displacement.
There’s also the theme of measuring up to a father’s lofty expectations - and what could be loftier than winning approval from Zeus himself (voice of Rip Torn)?
Hercules has an Achilles heel, after all, in the form of Meg (Susan Egan), an alarmingly self-assured sexpot. “I’m a big, tough girl,” she assures her would-be savior. “I tie my own sandals and everything.”
Animation is one area where Disney’s corporate obsessive-compulsiveness comes in handy. The attention to detail is astonishing, from the birdlike movements of the winged horse Pegasus to the seemingly casual profusion of one-liners (dialing for help in Roman numerals). A great deal of computer animation has been thrown into the mix as well.
The movie’s nod to its own merchandising makes that sordid business slightly more palatable (Hercules hawks his own “Buns of Bronze” exercise video).
Anyway, “Hercules” doesn’t need action figures and spin-off products to succeed. Not when there are “bits of business” so child-thrilling as a witchy Fate snarfing up a spider that hangs from her nose like a booger.
Disney animation may be sophisticated, but it never forgets its audience.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Hercules” Locations: East Sprague, Newport, Post Falls, Showboat Credits: Animated feature with voices of Tate Donovan, Danny DeVito, James Woods. Directed, produced and written by John Musker and Ron Clements Running time: 1:27 Rating: G
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