Let's assume that you haven't seen either The Hunchback Of Notre Dame or Pocahontas - - because we don't know anybody who has (at least, nobody who liked them). You're wondering whether it could be credible to ever see another Disney cartoon feature, even if it has some great voices and you're a huge fan of animation. Well, the answer is a resounding yes, because Hercules is the sort of cartoon Disney used to make, the kind of shimmeringly polished and original entertainment nobody else has ever come close to equalling.
A lot of the credit for this success must lie with Musker and Clements, the duo who brought us The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. They're spearheading the current Disney renaissance, although rampant 'toon fans might argue, and quite rightly, that the real breakthrough was M&C's first feature, Basil: The Great Mouse Detective, with its ground-breaking CG climax among the cogs of Big Ben.
With so many variants of the Hercules legend over the centuries (so what are they for, if not for embellishing?), Disney can safely say ""fie"" to anyone who accuses this jolly sing-song adaptation of being as disrespectful towards its source as friend-to-singing-woodland-animals Pocahontas or the non-ugly Hunchback Of A Very Tall Notre Dame. The fine script makes no apologies for its modernity, peppered with anachronistic satirical swipes: ""Look at me!"" cries a doll-clutching Herc as his fame spreads, ""I'm an action figure!""
Among the famous names lending their voices, Danny DeVito excels as Phil, the short, dumpy, hero-trainer with goat's legs; Matt Frewer (Lawnmower Man 2 and Max Headroom) and Bobcat Goldthwait stand out as the obligatory evil-doing sidekicks Pain and Panic, while Rip Torn (Larry Sanders Show and Men In Black) is a suitably bombastic Zeus - - ""Didn't know you had a famous father, huh?"" But top honours must go to James Woods as the sneering Lord of the Underworld, Hades. Bad guys are always the most fun to play, and Woods clearly lapped this one up, switching with consummate ease from fast-talking sarcasm to OTT fury and back: ""We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, go home happy, what'd'ya say?""
As is traditional with Disney, there's a clutch of chirpy songs, one of which is the most godawful I-know-I-can-do-it-if-I-believe-in-myself ballad imaginable (and hey, make sure you leave as soon as the credits come up, or you'll hear it reprised by - - gnngh! - - Michael Bolton.) But for the most part the tunes are swinging, funky gospel belters with a female backing chorus (the Muses) explaining what's happening and generally kicking some soundtrack ass. But we bet it's still the ballad that gets the Oscar nod.
Most excitingly, though, Hercules is set apart from other recent Disney cartoons by the unique, stylised character design, courtesy of celebrated political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. Gone is the wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked realism of Pocahontas and the traditional, well-defined lines of The Lion King. Instead, Scarfe's dominating influence has created surreally angular, exaggerated characters which owe more to the Bauhaus school of animation than to good old Uncle Walt. More another quip-packed Aladdin than a goo-drenched Pocahontas, Hercules is a fantastic adventure. Kids will love the cartoon, adults will get the more subtle puns, gags and social sideswipes. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Don't worry about having to borrow your sister's kids for the afternoon so you can pretend you're only there because they wanted to see the film. Hercules is a welcome return to form for Disney, using the medium of animation to the best effect imaginable. It's not perfect, but it's terrific fun and shows why Mickey and his friends still lead in this field.
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