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One of those byways comes courtesy of the other element that’s all but demanded of a Disney animated film, at least circa the late-1990s: songs. Meg’s isn’t a soppy ballad, though it nearly was. As Egan mentioned, Menken and lyricist David Zippel had another song for Meg in mind, called “I Can’t Believe My Heart”. Only after Ken Duncan, Meg’s supervising animator, pointed out that the song didn’t fit with the character or her sharp-edged personality did the composer and lyricist come up with “I Won’t Say (I’m In Love)”, which both fits a slower-paced style but feels decidedly more strident and Meg-like.

The music, in general, in Hercules is both charming and also not the strongest of the Renaissance era. It marks an important milestone in the era, though: this was the last time that Alan Menken served as composer during the 90s. (Since Hercules, Menken has served as composer for just three Disney animated films: Home on the Range, Tangled, and Ralph Breaks the Internet.) Stephen Schwartz was no longer part of the songwriting team (arguably to the film’s detriment), because he was pushed out due to his presence on the 1998 DreamWorks animated film The Prince of Egypt, according to the biography Defying Gravity. In his place, Disney hired the Tony-Award-winning lyricist David Zippel onto the project.

The result of this one-time cinematic partnership (Menken and Zippel had worked before on the Broadway musical Diamonds) is not the strongest overall set of Disney songs. There’s the “I Want”-style number in the form of “Go the Distance”, but Hercules’ goal to figure out where in life he belongs ends up sounding a bit generic, in spite of the earnest performance from Roger Bart, who provides the young hero’s singing voice. And just as Robin Williams got a show-stopping musical number in Aladdin, Danny DeVito gets an ostensible show-stopper here with “One Last Hope”, but DeVito’s raspy voice doesn’t lead to a musically pleasing number.

The true standouts are the Muses, voiced and sung by Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman, and Vaneese Y. Thomas. They get a handful of numbers, like “Zero to Hero” and “A Star is Born”, that feel of a piece (intentionally or not) with the musical that inspired Disney to hire Alan Menken and his songwriting partner Howard Ashman back in the 1980s, Little Shop of Horrors. The songs hit the right notes (pun intended) of humor and joy, as the characters never feel like they’re singing the same gospel-tinged piece. It’s about as good as late-era Renaissance Disney music gets, where a few of the other songs feel a bit too familiar after years of familiar ballads and gut-busting show-stoppers.

A Time for Pulling Out the Stops

If there’s any real problem with Hercules, which is a perfectly charming, snappy film, it’s that unavoidable fact: if this was the first film of the Renaissance, or had it arrived before Aladdin, it might have felt fresher and funnier. Instead, by arriving after so many of the undeniable, unbeatable classics of the era, Hercules almost feels like leftovers. Disney, unsurprisingly, spared no expense in promoting the film in the summer of 1997. Whatever else was the case, the success of the earlier Renaissance films had ensured that Disney would all but shut down Times Square to make sure the world knew about its upcoming release. 

Marketing didn’t help this time, though. Hercules was barely outgrossed by the previous year’s animated film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The hunky hero’s film made just $99 million at the box office; in its first weekend, it was outgrossed by the John Woo action film Face/Off. Reviews were decent, even as some critics couldn’t get behind the Gerald Scarfe-inspired animation, being so different from previous Disney films. The late Gene Siskel mused on “how soft and cheap” it looked. Desson Howe of the Washington Post deemed the animation “some of the worst I’ve ever cringed through”. (These criticisms grow more mystifying as time passes. Though the animation is quirky, and perhaps not as rigorously detailed as that in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s often unforgettably sharp and striking.)

Time has largely been kind to Hercules, removed from any context. Coming right after the daring and risky The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the film — while full of plenty of dark humor, such as a riff on the McDonald’s slogan as we see that Hades’ Underworld serves billions of…guests — does feel like a bit of a qualitative step down, or at least an affirmation that the studio wouldn’t get that adult moving forward. But even though it’s an imperfect animated film, Hercules is, like the animation style that informed its design, sharp-edged and unexpected, and easy to look past without giving it its fair due.

***

Next Time: Looking at our reflection with Mulan.

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