One Last Hope

James Woods, by the mid-1990s, had established himself as a) an intense screen presence and b) not the kind of actor you’d usually see in family films. He’d worked with David Cronenberg, Oliver Stone, and Martin Scorsese, playing tough-as-nails journalists, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and more non-family-friendly characters. Though Hercules came just a year after the very dark Disney take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, its vision of Hades, as inspired by a comment Woods himself made, was less terrifying that Judge Claude Frollo. Yes, this Hades was still a nasty piece of work, but in the way that a studio executive is.

Woods’ interpretation of Hades is still perhaps the best part of Hercules. (In the year 2019, depending on your political opinions, this may jibe quite strongly with the current state of James Woods’ public persona. Such is life.) Disney’s version of Hades isn’t exactly unstuck in time like the Genie is – the whole film exists in a weird anachronistic place where characters spout off one-liners like they’re on an HBO sitcom with slightly less profanity. (When Paul Shaffer, as Hermes, glibly states that the party he’s attending is the biggest lovefest “since Narcissus discovered himself”, it feels like a statement of purpose for the whole film’s sense of humor.)

But when we see Hades, he’s both smarter than everyone else in the room and a lot hipper. This Hades is an eternal schmoozer; when he meets the adult Hercules up close and personal, he puts on the biggest car-salesman (or Hollywood-agent) like spectacle. “I’ve got this deal in the works, call it a real estate venture”, he starts, before closing his pitch to have Hercules bow out of the climactic battle thusly: “We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy, what do you say? Come on.”

Hades didn’t bust out into a ton of characters, though Woods did do some improvising that made it so Ranieri and the other animators had to keep up with his mile-a-minute style of speech. But that style of speech, and the mixture of intelligence and frustration in Woods’ voice, makes Hades a truly special villain even if — unlike a few other villains in the Renaissance — he doesn’t get a song of his own. It’s enough to watch Hades stew, and hear it in Woods’ voice, when he’s dealing with his moronic, demonic henchmen Pain and Panic, or the trio of elderly Fates. (When they keep reminding him that they know what he’s asking about, because they know everything, he all but yells “I know you know! I got it. I got the concept.” It’s all in the delivery.) And Woods’ take on Hades still enables him to be terrifyingly angry, as when he sees that Pain and Panic are drinking Hercules-branded cups and wearing his shoes, or as he puts it: “…You…are wearing…his merchandise?!?”

That’s Ancient History

The basic story of Hercules is not, perhaps, its strongest suit. You don’t have to look too hard to see similarities between the 1997 film and other Disney animated efforts in one characterization or story beat. The protagonist being separated from their parents is a hallmark of Disney storytelling, though it’s kind of remarkable that Hercules does have both his mother and father (even if he’s nowhere near them). And the specifics of Hercules’ separation — as well as the threat he poses to Hades only once he’s grown up — feel somewhat similar to that of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty

Aside from Woods’ performance, where Hercules stands out among its peers is largely in its distinctive animation design. Musker and Clements, early on in the development process for the film, were inspired to reach out to British animator Gerald Scarfe based on an old magazine cover he’d done of The Beatles. Scarfe was not, admittedly, the obvious choice to work on a Disney film due to his satirical illustrations of Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and other American politicos. But inexplicable as it may have been, Scarfe’s initial handful of drawings for a story of Hercules ended up landing him the job of the film’s production designer.

As the directors of the film explained to the Los Angeles Times, “We realized there was a direct correlation between Gerald’s style and the Greek vase painting style, a combination of power and elegance, very bold and dynamic but also decorative.” The resulting effort is a film that both looks of a piece with the rest of the Disney Renaissance, but also looks unique and singular. Hades, as a character, seems apt as a Disney villain, just as Hercules looks roughly appropriate as a beefy Disney hero. But the sharp lines that constitute their facial and physical designs stand out as Scarfe originals, as do the various monsters of Greek myth that populate the world of the film.

The most memorable of those monsters is the one who inadvertently helps Hercules prove his worth to the skeptical citizens of Thebes: the multi-headed Hydra. Though Scarfe did provide basis drawings for the Hydra, the setpiece featuring the monster is another example of Disney’s hand-drawn animated features introducing more computer-animated wizardry into the mix. In the downtime between the first and second feature films from Pixar, Disney was bringing more 3-D animation into its features. In just seven years, the studio had gone from an opening-credits sequence in the Australian Outback being computerized in The Rescuers Down Under, to a hero fending off an infinitely-headed bad guy in a major setpiece. 

More than 20 years later, the Hydra sequence is memorable more for the sideline commentary from Hades than it is for the blend of hand-drawn and computer animation. Unlike the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral or the stampeding wildebeest of recent memory, the Hydra is more obviously a computerized creation (even with Scarfe’s distinctive designs pushing it into being) and thus somewhat out of place. The necessity of including computer animation is understandable; it’s also more noticeable.

A Prize for Rotten Judgment

Hercules himself is charming enough, as voiced by Tate Donovan (of TV’s Damages and Friends, among other credits). But Hercules suffers the same fate as the title character of Aladdin: we’re told how special he is without the character always proving it himself. (At least here, we get plenty of visual proof of how strong Hercules is, whereas Aladdin just was a diamond in the rough, because the story demanded it.) The key difference is that, where Jasmine was also a fairly uninteresting character, the same isn’t true of Hercules’ female counterpart and love interest, Megara, voiced by Susan Egan.

Egan nearly didn’t get the chance to play Meg, the young woman who falls in love with Hercules even as she’s being forced to serve as bait for our hero by the demonic Hades. “Alan Menken initially blocked me”, Egan once recounted in an interview. Egan was no stranger to the world of Disney and music by the point of the film’s release: she originated the role of Belle in the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast. But it was that very role that made Menken wary of Egan as the right woman to play the feistier, deadpan Meg. She did eventually get Menken to relent, and auditioned to play a character inspired by screwball-comedy leads like Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve

Meg is a vastly more interesting character than Hercules, or “Wonder Boy” as she calls him, in part because Egan’s performance is brimming with personality where Donovan (through no fault of his own — he’s fine) is given a less multi-dimensional character to play. Hercules could be brooding, or frustrated that he’s gained fame without really understanding what it means to be a hero, but he often seems like an overgrown child. Meg, at least, is full of creative angles and unexpected byways.

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