Was it possible that the very directors who played a big part in the launching of the Disney Renaissance would be the ones to save it?
I’m talking about Ron Clements and John Musker. They joined Walt Disney Productions in the mid-to-late 1970s, getting their kicks on features like The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound. Despite the turmoil that plagued the early-to-mid 1980s, they rose up as feature directors. The duo, alongside veteran Burny Mattinson and the seasoned Dave Michener, directed The Great Mouse Detective, which was released nationwide in the summer of 1986. Over thirty years ago. Unlike the stiff The Fox and the Hound and the rather uneventful The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective packed something that many of the Disney animated features made after Walt’s death were missing: Energy.
The Great Mouse Detective was by no means a blockbuster, it was merely just a profitable film that kept the major worries about feature animation being shuttered at bay. The picture garnered better critical reception than the last two features, which no doubt bolstered the animators’ confidence. Its box office performance is probably why a lot of people don’t mark it as the beginning of animation’s 2nd Golden Age. For me, that honor actually belongs to another mouse: Don Bluth’s An American Tail. Unlike Mouse Detective, that was a big hit, broke records for an animated feature, and showed Disney’s new executives that, yes, animated features could still make big money.
By the time The Great Mouse Detective was released, Ron and John already were hard at work on their second feature. They applied that same pizazz to the project, the very film that rocketed Disney above the cliffs… The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid is actually my favorite of the Renaissance pictures, not just because of its sheer consistency and great characters, but also because… The looseness of it works in its favor. Not too preoccupied with trying to be something grand or something meant sell Happy Meals, The Little Mermaid flows so well.
In the previous part, I looked at The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the last of what I like to call the sort of “prestige” Disney Renaissance films. Films that were trying to be Oscar-winning, “high art” works. Or as Clements once put it, “Miramax” movies. Look at Ron and John’s entire filmography, you’ll see that none of their films tried to be like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They always seemed to like the cool, loose kind of comedy-adventure with healthy doses of heart and drama. That all started with their debut feature back in 1986, and it’s on full display in their latest smash – Moana.
That is not to say that the more arty pictures were bad in any way. Beauty and the Beast is great, The Lion King has many strengths, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a feature that I think really works despite its big shortcomings. Pocahontas, I think, is the trip-up. It trying to be a prestige picture is one of the issues, but not the only one.
After Aladdin‘s completion, Ron and John revived a pet project that they pitched back in the mid-1980s. A science fiction adventure that put Treasure Island in space, Katzenberg said no to it. He then had a change of heart, and requested that Ron and John make another more “commercial” film first, then they could go on to do Treasure Planet. They agreed, though they rejected a stream of various projects until settling on Hercules. Inspired by animator Joe Haidar’s Hercules pitch from a year earlier, Ron and John set out to make a comedic “superhero” story. Something much closer in tone and style to Aladdin than The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Of course, Katzenberg was out the door shortly after The Lion King‘s release in the summer of 1994. Changes were underway, and while Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame still bare a lot of the Katzenberg-instilled Disney trademarks, Hercules seems to be in the middle, as it doesn’t quite feel like the two films that came after it.
Hercules was not only a break from the prestige picture (as you can see from the more fun-looking poster above), the artists went down a completely different path, creating a look that was unlike anything seen in a previous Disney animated film. Hercules‘ art style applies Disney traditions to the work of cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who was the production designer on the film. The British illustrator’s very twisted, off-kilter style – and he was the director of the animated portions of the film based on Pink Floyd’s The Wall – is probably the last thing one would associate with Disney’s animation, and who would think of using that to bring Greek mythology to the screen? It’s such a random choice on the surface, but Ron and John were always big fans of his work, so it makes sense. Hercules is probably one of the last of the very distinct Disney animated features because of this, for it really sinks itself into the style of someone else for a change. Few Disney animated films did just this after its release.
While Hercules did cool new things in the visual world, it was pretty much the same film that we saw over and over at that point… While there are no booming, operatic Broadway-like songs to be heard here, the film is still a musical adventure with the clear-cut good guy, the love interest, the big bad guy, the wisecracking sidekicks, and the big epic climax at the end. Hercules even has an “I Want” song. In the end, the execution is what matters… So does Hercules work despite its formulaic elements?
Less an epic adventure, and more an Ancient Greece-set Superman-like origin story, Hercules is pretty much a very loose adaptation, unsurprisingly. All of the labors he did in the original myths? Done in mere seconds, during a montage no less! Hades is made the villain here, as he wants to, you wouldn’t guess… Take over Mount Olympus! The only way he can do that? He has to wait eighteen years for the planets to align, and with that, he can awaken the fearsome titans that bring his plans to fruition. Fearing that Hercules could stop him, he orders his minions Pain and Panic to weaken the infant Hercules with a potion, and then get rid of him. Naturally, these silly sidekicks fail to do so, but Hercules is separated from his immortal parents and raised on Earth. There is one dilemma for Hades… Hercules didn’t drink all the potion, so he’s still got all of the monstrous strength.
Right off the bat, you can see that various parts of the myth have been clumped and molded into a Disney Renaissance picture, which I think hurts the film in some ways. That being said, I love what Ron and John brought to this generic storyline, which helps the picture rise above its shortcomings for the most part. It is also very funny, even a riot in parts – much like Aladdin. From the first few seconds, you’re shown exactly what you’re in for. Five comical, gospel-singing muses open the picture the way the Peddler starts off Aladdin. The fourth wall will be broken, the tone will be irreverent, you’ll know that you’re watching a movie. The Muses, unlike the Peddler, continue to show up, they are the “Greek chorus”.
The first act is sharp. Hercules’ angst and dilemmas are handled well, it’s emotional and balances out comedy. Since he’s so strong, Hercules often causes damage to his home town, and the inhabitants really don’t like him. ‘Go The Distance’ actually kind of does some new things for an ‘I Want’ song. Rather than merely wanting something bigger, Hercules finds out the truth from his adoptive parents, sets off on a new path in life, and seeks to be with the Gods. More than just “wanting more” than a boring life or being forced to be something he doesn’t want to be. The song is more about his dedication to finding his true place, how he will “do” it, not “want” it. Finding out from Zeus that he has to become a great hero, Hercules sets out to find the trainer of heroes: Philoctetes.
Unexpectedly, said trainer is retired and all of his would-be heroes turned out to be busts. A wise-guy (big shock!) satyr, Phil actually is a fun character and his relationship with Hercules is well thought-out. Even more interesting is what they do with the love story. Megara made a deal with Hades years ago, one that continues to hang over her like a dark cloud. She sold her soul to him in an attempt to save her boyfriend, who ended up dumping her anyways. Like all of her other boyfriends. At times, she really does want love, but she also wants to swear all of that off. She has quite the backstory, and is actually more interesting than the main hero. Hades is also a fun villain to watch, alternating between hilarious and comically terrifying.
By the middle of the picture, Hades’ attempts to kill the mortal Hercules don’t go over too well. One of these attempts produces an excellent action sequence, where Hercules battles a multi-headed Hydra. While the use of computer animation is quite noticeable, it’s the staging and the movements that make this scene a thrill, nearly two decades later. All of this leads to a pretty satisfactory third act where Hercules learns the hard cold truth, that Hades is using Megara to weaken Hercules. Hercules then sells his powers – for a whole day – to Hades in order to release Meg from his deal. One stipulation? That deal breaks off if Meg gets hurt. The rest plays out like you would expect it to. Their fourth film in, Ron and John climax the show with the rise of the titans. This continued their love for final battles involving giant creatures: Giant Ursula, Snake/Genie Jafar, this… And some 19 years later, Moana would revisit that element with the lava goddess Te Fiti.
Thankfully, they still have fun with it. You also have Hercules’ deal with Hades, which makes things a little more interesting than usual, and his ultimate sacrifice at the end that makes him a god.
Hercules is tightly-plotted, but it is brisk. Perhaps a little too brisk. Pacing and animated features is often a big issue with me, because many modern mainstream animated films – and this definitely affects quite a few Renaissance films – mostly hover below the 100-minute mark. This often leads to films that have a lot going on, but struggle a bit to cram it all in. There are some moments in Hercules where you kind of wish they didn’t disappear in a split-second. Some of the hyper-fast scenes you see during the rousing ‘Zero to Hero’ montage are exciting, and then I kind of imagine full sequences made out of those tiny, minuscule little tidbits.
At roughly 93 minutes, Hercules flies. By contrast, the 76-minute Lady and the Tramp feels longer and just right. Walt happened to be a master at pace, so it’s a bit unfair to compare the Renaissance films when it comes to that. Another problem with the film is something that plagues Aladdin… It’s dated in some areas. The modernized, admittedly inaccurate Ancient Greece setting makes way for some references, some of which are overt. Hercules is littered with quite a few pop culture jokes, including a lot of digs on sports and the merchandise that athletes’ fame spawns. A move that predated DreamWorks’ Shrek 2 and its modern Hollywood-meets-Medieval times, product placement-loaded setting.
Hercules‘ other issues stem from its awkwardness. Sometimes it doesn’t feel fully committed to the way it wants to tell the story, and admittedly the gospel-tinged music doesn’t always quite line up with the Greek setting. John Musker had wanted that genre, while Alan Menken wanted something more Greek and something more akin to the Leonard Bernstein operetta Candide. At the same time, the weird meshing of the two makes it all the more fascinating. That doesn’t take away from the catchy nature of the songs, either. ‘Zero to Hero’ is a blast, as is ‘One Last Hope’, which tells a lot in just a few minutes quite nicely. ‘I Won’t Say I’m in Love’ bolsters the Meg subplot and her character, and the three-part ‘Gospel Truth’ is a decent intro to the proceedings.
Lastly, the other problem I have is that Hercules is essentially a Disney Renaissance picture. By this time, it became so evident that Disney boxed its animation into a genre. Animation, of course, is not a genre… But I feel Disney’s executives created an “animation genre” by making all the films so similar. I think this one could’ve benefited from deviating from that formula, even though Disney Feature Animation was locked into repeating themselves by the higher-ups. In 1997, this grated on many, and it showed that some were weary of the fact that they were seeing the same movie over and over. Not even a more loose, Aladdin-esque tone could win many audiences back. Hercules performed almost exactly like The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the North American box office, despite a very aggressive and monolithic marketing campaign behind it.
While garnering pretty good reviews, it just missed $100 million stateside and fell a little too short of the desired $300 million benchmark worldwide. Disney’s executives were very shook by the performance. The stock dropped, and the executives pinned it on the summer blockbuster competition. While its $252 million gross was nearly 3x the budget, it was no Hunchback, which was also looked at as a disappointment. Aladdin managed to make $217 million in North American alone. This didn’t look good to them or the analysts. The pin-pricked balloon kept whistling out air. Was it slowly ending?
Disney was still ruling the box office roost, despite Hercules being something of a low for them. 1997’s second biggest animated film came from a back-on-a-roll Don Bluth, but the picture in question wasn’t quite a Bluth movie, it felt more like a Renaissance Disney movie: Fox Animation’s Anastasia, and that was the holiday season event of the year… It puttered out at $57 million domestically and $139 million worldwide. Of course it didn’t take off, Fox continued the sin that other non-Disney distributors were committing at the time, even in the days when Disney themselves couldn’t rely on the formula anymore.
Outside of the out-of-nowhere success of Space Jam, Disney still remained on a high peak on the animation box office mountain, but not on the Everest-like peak where The Lion King sat. What would be next?
Could a more action-oriented film be the ticket? Toon in next time…