With entertainment.ie turning 25 this year, we're rolling back the clock to 1997 and revisiting movies on release during our site's early days. Each week, we'll take a trip down memory lane and come back with a movie you may remember, may have forgotten, or in this case, you might just remember but not as clearly...
If one were to organise the animated movies of Disney into social orderings ala a typical high school / secondary school, you would find Pixar and the likes of 'Snow White', 'The Lion King', 'Aladdin', 'Beauty and the Beast', and maybe 'The Little Mermaid' all perched around the popular kids' table. They're the ones everyone knows, everyone remembers, and everyone likes. Broad appeal, big songs, and so on. Then there's the Pixar table, and we can all guess who's at that table - 'Toy Story', 'The Incredibles', 'Inside Out', recent entries like 'Turning Red', and 'Wall-E'. After that, however, you've got the weird kids' table. The ones that didn't fit in with everything else going on in this laboured analogy. Sitting at the top of the table is undoubtedly 'The Emperor's New Groove', but seated directly opposite it is 'Hercules'.
'Hercules' was not a box office success in the way that Disney hoped, but like most people in school who sat at the weird table, they normally go on to have the most interesting lives afterwards. Looking back after 25 years, it's easy to spot how 'Hercules' didn't resonate with audiences then. For one, it's far too smart for its own good.
Tate Donovan's performance as Hercules is the very ideal of Himbo. He was the Alpha Himbo. Brain empty, arms big, sweet and innocent, just wants to help everyone but is being torn apart by machinations around him. Say what you want about James Woods, but his performance as Hades is easily his finest work. Forget 'Once Upon A Time In America', forget 'Salvador', even forget 'John Carpenter's Vampires'. This is his crowning achievement as an actor - a pushy, fast-talking Hollywood agent who's mixed up in a real estate deal and wants to close it fast in order to make it to the links. The mere fact that he is the ruler of the Greek underworld is scenery. Woods plays this role like he's just walked off the set of a Martin Scorsese movie. Indeed, just two years prior, he played Lester Diamond in 'Casino'.
Up until this point, Disney had begun to dip its toe into the idea of casting non-voice actors for its roles. 'The Lion King' may have featured the likes of Jeremy Irons and Matthew Broderick, but in 'Hercules', the physical space of the actors played a much larger role. Animators watched all of James Wood's filmography to capture the actor's persona for Hades. Megara, meanwhile, was based on '30s screen sirens like Barbara Stanwyck, while Hercules' curly hair matched Tate Donovan's boyish good looks. Danny DeVito's scowl was drawn to match Phil's, while Hermes even had the eyeglasses worn by Paul Shaffer, his voice actor.
Hercules as portrayed here is history's greatest himbo. He gets everything right, does everything that's expected of him, but still manages to never get it right. Considering 'The Lion King' was Hamlet in the African plains, things went a lot smoother for Simba / Hamlet. 'Aladdin' was a rags-to-riches story, but 'Hercules' was a child born of privilege who still couldn't get it together.
'Hercules' was much more cynical than anything Disney had done before and arguably since. Meg, for example, sold her soul to Hades in order to save a lover who then left her and has become bitter. Hades, likewise, is bitter and recalcitrant against Olympus. Hercules is caught in the middle of all this, pulled and pushed by the expectations of his father Zeus, the machinations of Hades, and his feelings for Meg. In the middle of all this, you've got the whole idea of fate and destiny playing around. Hercules is supposed to be this person who knows all, and is able to do all, but is very often unsure of who he's meant to be. Much like 'The Emperor's New Groove', 'Hercules' had a raucous kind of comedy that was akin to screwball comedies of the '40s mixed with '90s pop culture references. Though these references may be dated, 'Hercules' still holds as an example of when Disney's animation studio was prepared to poke fun at its own Olympus, embrace the cynicism of Generation X, and make a smart and silly comedy all in one.