Blu-ray Review: Disney's Hercules (1997)

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Along with Tarzan (1999), Hercules is the other chapter of the Disney Renaissance period to emerge on Blu-ray this August. Seventeen years ago its $99 million domestic gross was strong enough to place it in the top twenty films of that year. But it was inarguably a disappointment in comparison to the studio’s biggest hits of the era. A blatant attempt to tap into the inspired zaniness that Robin Williams contributed to Aladdin, Hercules was a calculated response to the charges that the previous year’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was too mature for young children. Unfortunately there’s very little that truly tickles the funny bone in this Saturday morning cartoon rendering of the Greek Gods.

Part of the issue lies with the dull characterization of the titular hero. Hercules (voiced by Tate Donovan), son of Zeus (Rip Torn), lurches forward on his Superman-like journey with such solemn predictability that he never hooks us into his plight. He’s just a stalwart hero, embarking on the task of stopping Hades (James Woods) from ruling Olympus. Which brings us to another, perhaps even bigger, problem: Hades is far from menacing. We should despise and fear Hades the way we do the classic villains of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cruella de Vil of 101 Dalmatians. I’m sure Woods was simply doing what he was told; the fault lie in the way co-writers and co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker have conceived the character. He’s such a comic presence that we never feel the threat. Hades’ underworld is simply presented as a more interesting version of the admittedly under-imagined Olympus, led by a wisecracker who never seems like a formidable foe of the Titans.

Hercules_New to Blu-Ray_4 (380x225).jpgThe supporting characters add more mirth (or wheezing attempts at it) but little dramatic weight. As Hercules’ minions Pain and Panic, Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer try their best to be memorable sidekicks but they’re more irritating than anything. I didn’t remember that Goldthwait was even still doing that strangled vocal affectation he was so known for in movies like Police Academy by 1997. More to the point, I’m surprised anyone still wanted him to. Speaking of sidekicks, on the hero side of things we get Danny DeVito as the voice of Philoctetes, the satyr responsible for training heroes. Like most of the voice cast, DeVito huffs and puffs to try and breathe life into his character, but he ends up coming off as slightly less annoying than Rosie O’Donnell’s Terk in Tarzan. Sometimes casting super-recognizable voices only ends up working against an animated production if they aren’t bringing anything more than sonic familiarity to the proceedings.

Hercules_New to Blu-Ray_8 (380x231).jpgAs all of this forced wackiness grinds toward the inevitable, overlong showdown between Hercules and Hades, we’re kept up-to-date on various developments by the Muses. These musical narrators are a group of a five African-American women (voiced by Lillias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan and Vanéese Y. Thomas). There’s more than a whiff of ethnic stereotyping at work here, as if the filmmakers thought, “Hey, people are always saying Disney has problems with racial controversies, be it due to grotesque caricatures or simply by under-representing minorities. Can we fit any people of color into the world of Hercules?” Of course they could’ve. It’s all based upon mythology. They could’ve cast any voices they wanted. But they chose to relegate (segregate, really) their black performers to decidedly passive roles. Oh, but with plenty of sassiness and attitude. Though the five Muses themselves wind up delivering the finest singing heard in the film, the way it’s all conceived you’d think Hercules had been produced in 1947 rather than ’97.

While it might not earn its place in the Disney Animated Classics Series, often coming across tonally like something tossed out by DisneyToon Studios, Hercules looks pretty solid in 1080p high definition. The film’s still-impressive animation is bursting with color and it all seems quite accurately represented here. Clarity is strong throughout and overall the visual aspect is the most consistently delightful aspect of the entire production. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is actually another highlight of this release, teeming with directionality. Never assaultive or wearying, the action sequences nonetheless provide a suitable barrage of cool effects from all channels. And unlike the unusual 5.0 mix found on Tarzan, the subwoofer is given its due with a powerful low end.

Hercules_New to Blu-Ray_7 (380x226).jpgAs for special features, Disney fanatics should be prepared for crushing disappointment with Hercules. All we get is a ten-minute, standard definition EPK puff piece and a Ricky Martin music video (also SD). It’s too bad that even for a lesser effort like this Disney couldn’t be bothered to cough up a few extra vintage pieces (let alone tapping the original filmmakers and/or voice cast for some retrospective interviews, etc). Where on Earth is the 1998 prequel feature, Hercules: Zero to Hero? Not that it’s a great movie (certainly not worthy of a standalone release), but this was another opportunity for a double-feature, a la quite a few other recent Disney Animated Classics Blu-rays (for the record, they didn’t include Tarzan & Jane as part of Tarzan, either). As it is, the Blu-ray package also contains a standard DVD and an iTunes-compatible digital copy.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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