Hercules_training

Hercules

Year of Release: 1997

Best Song: “Go The Distance”

Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, Hercules wears its flaws on its animated sleeve. The shades of their prior animated work (Aladdin) can be felt all over this particular project. Both are stories of young boys becoming heroic men, who are driven by wanting to find a place to belong, and are romantically attracted to strong ladies. Add in the funny Genie type character (Phil) and a mode of transportation with personality (Pegasus) and…well, I’m sure you get where I’m going with this. 

But that shouldn’t deter from what makes Hercules something special all on its own. The production design, aided by British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, is unique, and when you notice the influence of Al Hirschfeld blended into the character designs, you can’t un-notice it (in a good way, of course). The music throughout (by you guessed it, Alan Menken) is also infectious, as it shifts from Gospel to ’50s-inspired R&B in the blink of an eye. But with Menken in control of the music, it becomes a seamless experience.

Yet the true selling point of Hercules isn’t the electric animation or the music, but the voice acting. From James Woods as Hades to Susan Egan’s take on the screwball sass queen that is Megara, it’s hard to chose a favorite. But I always go back to Tate Donovan’s performance as the title character. He totally gets the goofball nature of Hercules, while also playing up his vulnerabilities, even when this hero is supposed to be at his most powerful. His line delivery (especially in his big speech at the end) always get me right in the “feels.”

Yet I’ll admit that, at its core, Hercules is one of those movies that I love more out of nostalgia than anything else. Though I’m still sticking to my guns and will say that it does a lot right, it is sloppy as often as it is successful. Ultimately, I don’t love Hercules any less for its shortcomings, but it just doesn’t “go the distance” as it once did for me.

The next Disney flick to come out also featured a tale of a great hero, but one that really changed the studio for the better.

Hero's_Journey_Mulan,_Call_to_Adventure

Mulan

Year of Release: 1998

Best Song: “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”

Though many will cite Pocahontas as the first true kick-butt female character of Disney’s Princess crew, I would say that Mulan deserves that honor. Yes, Mulan is obviously the pinnacle of girl power in the Disney cinematic world, paving the way for future ladies such as Kida from Atlantis and Moana. But does this all necessarily mean that Mulan (the movie) is as great as the achievements of her character?

First, we have to give a look at the production design elements, which are on par with that of Hunchback and even the Lion King in terms of scale and scope. Even watching the teaser trailer (featuring unfinished rough animation), you knew that, artistically, this was a Disney movie unlike any other they had made before. With the Chinese influences inspiring the design, songs, and characters, this wasn’t your grandma’s Mickey Mouse cartoon.

The cast of characters are also exceptional. Take our leading lady, who begins the story as a girl who doubts the role that society wants her to take on, makes a sacrifice for her family, and eventually becomes the person that she was destined to be all along. She (along with the other “good guy” characters) might be flawed and take their time to learn their lessons (especially Mushu and Li Shang) but that’s what makes them such a joy to watch. We adore them when they sing about their worries, cheer when they win, and celebrate their imperfections.

Speaking of laughter, let’s discuss Mulan’s humor. There’s a reason why so many people continuously use gifs and memes inspired by this movie almost 20 years later. We’ve all been at an event like summer camp or a convention that feels like Mulan’s moments in the army. Some of us have had inspirational friends like Mushu. And though there are times where the pop culture gags slow down the story rather than progress it (like the Batman reference near the end), the majority of the jokes stick the landing.

If there was an area where the film simply doesn’t work, it would be the villain. Yes, you could say that some of the things we don’t see on camera make for some of the most disturbing acts of villiany in a Disney film, but that is the major issue. If we saw more of the spooky aspects of the Huns rather than just hearing about it, they would remain as a threat in our minds. Instead, the snowy mountains in which Mulan battles on come off much more threatening than the bad guy himself.

But by the end of its running time, once you push away the forgettable villain, awkward ancestral meetings, and some of the less important subplots, it is easy to see that Mulan is quite the Disney gem. It serves as a great reminder of what the animation team could achieve artistically in the late ’90s, and that they could still produce something spectacular several years after The Lion King. Plus, any movie that has “I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” on the soundtrack is bound to be a classic.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for what would come next.

Continue Reading Exploring the Late ’90s Disney Movies >>

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