The Disney full-animated feature is the most profitable franchise in movies, maybe in the entire entertainment industry. The pressure to keep producing the tiniest variations on a winning formula must be severe. So it was brave for the Disney artists to try tiptoeing away from what worked. Pocahontas had soaring melodies to match its do-gooding intentions; The Hunchback of Notre Dame came within two deaths and three cute gargoyles of being the first grownup singing-cartoon romantic tragedy. But these two movies also had an almost toxic serioso content. At times they got so solemn they could have been Broadway musicals in the fashionable I'm-miserable-I'm-a- monster-I'm-a-Times-Square-whore-my-ship-is-sinking mode. Songs for suicides.
Hey, guys, welcome back. Hercules is a happy reminder that the genre was once called musical comedy. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) could have gone for a decorous retelling of Greek mythology, but a funny thing happened on the way to decorum. They decided to give the musical form what it has sorely lacked: pinwheeling, knockabout fun.
Don't look for this plot in Bulfinch. It's a shaggy-gods story with the requisite Disney theme of adolescent self-discovery: a cub becomes a lion; a mermaid becomes a maid; a geek kid becomes a Greek god. Hercules (voiced by Tate Donovan) is your basic mythic hybrid--half man, half deity--recast as a clumsy teen. Superman-strong and Bambi-naive, Herc is an ideal foil for wily Meg (a subtle siren, wonderfully voiced by Susan Egan). She plays Barbara Stanwyck to his Eddie Bracken, while a gruff satyr (Danny DeVito) acts as Herc's mentor and parries the anti-Olympus scheming of Hades (James Woods).
Woods portrays the Lord of the Underworld as a sour, conniving Hollywood agent. He works every meeting, with gods, mortals or demons, as if it's a bored crowd in a Vegas lounge ("So is this an audience or a mosaic?" he asks after a gag bombs). Even his compliments have the bite of insults: "You look like the Fate worse than death," he purrs to one of three haggish wraiths. And when he blows his smoldering top, it's like Krakatau in orgasm. In character, design and performance, Hades has it all.
This is a bright movie, in both senses of the word. The visual style, inspired by the pointy illustrations of Gerald Scarfe (who served as production designer), challenges the eye: blink, and you'll miss the sign in the sky indicating that Marilyn Monroe isn't just a star, she's a whole constellation. The script by Musker, Clements, Bob Shaw, Donald McEnery and Irene Mecchi is rife with Oedipus riffs, Achilles spiels, Zeus zingers and roman-numeral jokes--"Somebody call IX-I-I." The Greeks had a word for it: shtick.
Composer Alan Menken, on vacation after the operatic Hunchback score, hasn't delved this deeply into pop pastiche since his 1982 off-Broadway hit, Little Shop of Horrors. The quintet of Muses, like Little Shop's black-thrush trio, tells the story, doing justice to the jaunty R.-and-B. inflections ("and then along came Zeus") of David Zippel's serviceable lyrics. The ballad Go the Distance, as pummeled by Michael Bolton, is the tune you'll hear coming from every radio, music store and elevator this summer.