Friday, 8 May 2015

Who Put the Glad in Gladiator?

Hercules is often considered one of the weaker movies Disney put out in the 1990s and came towards the end of the Disney Renaissance started with The Little Mermaid in 1989 that continued with such classics as Beauty & the Beast and The Lion King. While not seen as terrible or boring, it seemed to be missing that extra bit of magic that most Disney movies had in the early to mid-1990s.

The thing with Hercules is that it's kinda hard to know where to start with it since it isn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination and is rather enjoyable but something just doesn't seem to work. Like staring a piece of art for a while before you realise you've hung it upside down, there's just something about Hercules that just seems off.

"Wait... do cities normally do that?" Ellen Page's character, probably.

Actually, that's not fair. It's more that the individual elements of the film don't really come together into a cohesive whole. Or that there are meh elements of the film that detract from the great parts so the film seems less than the sum of its parts.

No, that's not it either. There are things that just feel out of place and don't mesh. That's what it is. Things that just stick out as being odd or raising the question "why?" a lot. I'll get to that in a sec but perhaps I should start with those meh elements before I go onto the stuff that works or doesn't (Hey look, I find a place to start. That wasn't so hard after all).

I guess the first thing is Hercules himself. He's okay, I guess. Nothing wrong with him, he isn't annoying or obnoxious, nor is he a jerk. He is perfectly likable and nice. And that's about it. He's not particularly funny or witty, doesn't crack any wise or supply any of the film's more memorable lines.

"But I can go the distance"

He's just a nice guy. Although he is endearingly naive, nothing really sticks out about him or makes him notable as a character. To be fair, just how nice he is is itself rather interesting, or at least somewhat unique. He is so completely nice and agreeable that it's literally the only thing that is notable about him. Which isn't really something I think can be said of most movie protagonists, so he's got that going for him.

That said, this doesn't mean I don't like the character or think he's character arc is lacking. He still has a character and expresses desires and goals, gets excited and disappointed, hits some dramatic moments and conveys realish emotions effectively. And you do want to follow his hero's journey even if the hero on the journey is just the nice guy next door.

Because that's kinda who this version of Hercules is, the nice guy who's slightly sly but has a good heart and is just so nice, you guys. Like the nicest guy.

"I hope you don't mind but I'm going on this hero's journey and would like you to come along.
But, you know, only if you want to. No pressure either way, whatever you want to do is cool with me."

Moving past the character, the story itself isn't particularly unique. It's a pretty straightforward hero's journey without that many thrills. Especially since the more dramatic elements such as the betrayal by a brother with Hades plotting Zesus' downfall and trying to kill his nephew aren't actually portrayed with any melodrama, there isn't much weight to the story.

I mean, there are a couple of little touches here that differentiate it, such as giving the protagonist a literal reason to become a 'hero'. Most hero's journeys give the protagonist a oblique reason to get going and drive the narrative forward, usually dead parental figures. Think Luke's uncle and aunt being killed in A New Hope, Peter Parker's uncle Ben, Batman's parents, Superman's parents, the letter from Hogwarts to Harry (who has dead parents), and so on.

However, Hercules is expressing trying to become a hero in order to be a god again and get back into Olympus with his family. That is his motivation. Become hero to become a god. Not because he is driven by words of responsibility from his dead uncle or holographic father. He needs to prove himself a true hero to become a god, so that's what he sets out to do.

"Eh, it's as good a reason as any."

But let's move to the things that don't work or at least seem to be an odd choice, like the Muses. Now, I like the Muses, I think they serve as good narrators and their songs are great. By why do they sing gospel music? Who made that call?

Who thought, "Hercules, fantastic classic Greek tale, needs more gospel singing though"? This is the first little touch that just seems a bit off. There's nothing wrong with it per se, and the songs themselves are enjoyable, but the question is why?

And this question continues to pop up throughout the film. Why are there so many pop cultural references? Like everywhere in the film. During the training montage, Hercules rides Pegasus through the stars or something and a constellation of a woman holds her dress down in a very familiar way...

Oh, hi there, Marilyn. Didn't know you were a constellation.
Maybe think about pants though, since having something blow up your dress seems to happen a lot to you.

There's also the scene when they arrive in Phebes and Danny DeVito's character Phil yells "I'm walking here" echoing Dustin Hoffman's famous line from Midnight Cowboy (and I think the first time I ever heard the line).

Now, none of these pop cultural references are really obtrusive or ruin the film but when you watch the film as an adult, they do kinda feel out of place. Like they belong more in an episode of The Simpsons or Family Guy than a Disney animated feature.

I think they were trying to go for the feel of Aladdin in that sense but where the pop cultural references in Aladdin seemed to work since they were tied mostly to Genie (who is magic and possibly a time traveler), there's no such reason for the references here.

Oh, and I can't forget the merchandise. Oh, holy Zeus, the merchandise. Why does Hercules have his own merchandise in the movie about him? Is that supposed to be a comment on the rampant commercialisation of our heroes? That's a pretty neat idea but why in tale based on ancient Greek mythology?

"Rampant commercialism?"

Also, it makes little to no sense. How can they have shoes and bottles made out of plastic and synthetic materials with Hercules logo slapped on them in Ancient Greece? That might sound like I'm thinking about this too much, but it makes no sense in the world of the film, doesn't it?

If they have plastic, while does anyone bother with pottery? Since there is a lot of pottery in the film. I know that it's supposed to be just for a joke... and you know what, I can actually forgive all that just for this short scene with Hades:

That is a brilliant scene. Which brings me to the things in this movie that really work, namely Hades and Meg. James Wood is so delightfully excellent and entertaining as Hades it's incredible. Again this is another point where the film makes you ask "why?". 

Why does Hades talk like a used car salesman at a hundred words per second? When has Hades ever been portrayed in such a way? What suggests that he ever should have been? Absolutely nothing and yet we have been truly blessed Woods decided to go with used car salesman Hades.

He's just so funny and engaging in the role. The only reason every scene he's in wasn't stolen by him is because it was always his to begin with, you just didn't know it yet. You can just tell he is having so much fun with this character and that excitement is infectious. 

"Hey, what can I say? You remove the traditional approach to a character and bada bing bada boom, you're away."

Hades is great and Meg is perfect. She truly is one of Disney's greatest (and most underrated) female characters. Not a princess or girly girl, Meg is her own person. Her whole presence and character is a big comment on previous Disney female characters. Not that I'm knocking earlier Disney princess since there are a lot of great female characters among them despite their limitations.

However, Meg is such a strong and independent character. I know that's a bit rich saying since she is enslaved to Hades because she gave up her soul for a man. But that already differentiates her. How many previous Disney female characters, princess or otherwise, had an existing romantic relationship before the start of the movie? With someone other than the male lead?

I guess Duchess from the Aristocats since she has kittens if we are gonna split hairs, because of course we are, but they never discuss or mention that reality although it must have happened. With Meg, they actively discuss her past romantic relationship and it helped shaped who she is when we see her in the movie. It is an integral part of her backstory.

"It's been a slice." - Actual dialogue

Beyond that, Meg is a confident and no nonsense type of character. She holds her own with any of the male characters and probably has the best lines aside of Hades, cracking the wise while Hercules can only splutter and stutter in reply.

While she may be bound into servitude to a god because of a man, she doesn't let it define her and often actively resists Hades despite the fact he is a literal god. Also, her song (the best song in the movie by quite a large margin) is all about not falling in love due to how much she's been hurt in the past but that she might be willing to for Hercules since he's so nice, you guys.

And to be honest, the lyrics and tone of her song provide the perfect example of why I really like Meg as a character, she is a woman and has a back-story. She isn't a girl or young adult but a full-grown woman with a past experiences that have shaped her into the person she is now. She's been in love in the past and been hurt before which lead her to become rather skeptical and a bit cynical.

Meg being skeptical and cynical.

However, that also explains why she would be drawn to Hercules since he is so sweet and so nice, it makes a change from the jerks in her life and something that would attract her. He's sensitive and when he says he would never t do anything to hurt her she believes him because he is so sweet and sincere.

Meg furthermore takes an active role in the story with her actions effecting the narractive, not serving as trophy for the protagonist or just have things happen to her. She even saves Hercules by pushing him out of harm's way and sacrifices herself for him since, you know, she dies (it's okay Hercules brings her back from the dead - SPOILERS, I guess).

"You had a movie that came out in 1997 spoiled by a blogger on the internet? How terrible that must be for you."

There are other things in the movie that seem a bit off, like the goofy Looney Tunes sound effects that pop up in a couple of scenes or Phil's oddly sexual jokes and slightly misogynistic attitude but maybe that's a satyr thing. And there are other things that are meh like the young Hercules scenes. There are other things that are great too like the unique character designs (especially for the gods) and the fast pace of the animation.

But mostly I wanted to say that Hercules is an odd movie that's great yet somehow less than the sum its parts but one that I love with some of my favourite characters from any Disney movie. And I guess that's more then enough for it to be a true hero or something.


Hercules (1997 film) Wikipedia page

Hades - Loose Canon

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