directed by Ron
Clements & John Musker
(Buena Vista, 1997)

Putting a myth on the big screen is a Herculean task under any circumstances -- even more so when the mythical hero is Hercules.

That said, Walt Disney has managed to wring a lot of fun out of its latest foray into mythic moviemaking, even if it had to ignore quite a bit of the Hercules legend along the way.

There's no mention of the fact that the "real" Hercules had a mixed pedigree -- he was the result of an affair between the king of the gods and a married woman -- or that he had domestic problems of his own: according to legend, he slaughtered his wife and children, admittedly while under the spell of an enchantress.

Disney's animators have given us a kinder, if not gentler Hercules, almost an Aladdin clone.

Like Disney's Aladdin, Disney's Hercules is looking for his place in the world; he even sings a song to that effect, and, like Disney's Aladdin, finds himself in love with a woman who's light years out of his league, at least initially.

More importantly, Disney has placed their Hercules in the center of a post-modern ancient world, full of con men and merchandisers, where Thebes is New York ("The Big Olive") and Greek vase figures belt out Motownish tunes at the slightest provocation.

It's a risky move, but it works, in part because the supporting cast is as good as any the Disney animators have concocted to date.

Hades is the best, the villain who drives the machine. Perfectly voiced by Hollywood bad boy James Woods, Hades never loses his comic appeal no matter how menacing he becomes, or stops being menacing, even in his funniest moments.

He refers to his attempts to dethrone his brother Zeus and become king of the universe as "a hostile takeover bid," and struts about the underworld like a frustrated CEO: "Memo to me: Maim you after my meeting" he says in front of his two stooges, Pain and Panic.

Matching him barb for barb is a fur-wedgied satyr, Philoctes (Danny De Vito), whom Hercules takes on as a trainer, handler and de facto mother. De Vito is more predictable than Hades -- it's easy to question how far De Vito has ever evolved from Taxi -- but when he nearly gets hit by a Thebean chariot his "Hey, I'm walkin' here" reinforces the New York tone of it all.

Add to this an offbeat musical score (much of Hercules' story is sung, gospel style, by the Greek vase figures) and some self satire (Thebes has a Hercules Store that features a "Pecs and Flex workout scroll" named Buns of Bronze) and you have the makings of a lot of fun.

Ironically, the only thing in this animated adventure that doesn't work is the animation. Prince Philip fought only one dragon in Sleeping Beauty, and it had only one head. Hercules has a lot more trouble with the Hydra, but for some reason, he never seems seriously in danger.

Perhaps it's because the encounter occurs early in the film; perhaps it's because the three-dimensional computer animation used makes it look more like Hercules is being hounded by a video game.

Walt Disney's Hercules is no great film, even by Disney standards. Its animation doesn't approach that of Pinocchio or Snow White, and the plot is really just an overly complex reworking of Aladdin. But with most of its cast moving at the speed of light for 92 straight minutes, there's plenty of good music and memorable gags to go around.

You've bought the action figure, heard the songs and drunk the drink. Now rent the film and find out what all the fuss was about.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.