02 December 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: A KID WITH HIS ACT DOWN PAT

Following the massive, then-unprecedented success of Aladdin, the writing-directing-producing team of Ron Clements and John Musker were probably as close as any directors ever have been at Disney to having a free hand. Who deserved more trust than they did? They were now three-for-three: The Great Mouse Detective (for which they served as half of four total directors) had reversed the dire slump after The Black Cauldron, paving the way to their next project, The Little Mermaid, which was instantly recognised as the triumphant return of Disney animation to its glorious heights, for the first time in two decades or more. And now, they had just overseen the first animated film to ever clear $200 million at the U.S. box office. Surely, they could write their own ticket now? And they knew exactly what project to spend all that capital on, too, for they'd been nurturing it since before The Great Mouse Detective: an epic adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, set in space. They had already pitched it multiple times: the first time, they were instead assigned to The Little Mermaid, and the second time, they were given a choice of three stories, none of them even remotely "Treasure Island in space", and the result was Aladdin. Armed with their new confidence, Clements and Musker told the Disney executives that time for their dream project was now, to which the executives responded that the idea just didn't seem like a commercial winner. But hey, we have this Greek myth project going... Disappointed and fed up, Clusker - for that is the name that I have just now decided to give to this directing team - agreed to the project, but if and only if Disney would damn well let them do their damn Treasure Planet idea, assuming (and why not?) that the Greek thing turned out to be a hit.

The moral of the story is that there's no such thing as writing your own ticket at Disney.

For a project that the directors and producers (and lo! it seems they also co-wrote the screenplay) were essentially blackmailed into making, Hercules is actually not all that bad. In fact, it's a whole lot better than I remembered, for in my head, this was about as bad as the Disney Renaissance got - Pocahontas-bad, that's how I remembered it, although for mostly different reasons. But re-watching it for the first time in close to ten years, I found that it is rather an enjoyable comedy, for a children's picture. Let's not make any mistakes here: Hercules is not a high-water mark, by any stretch of the imagination. Like most of the other Disney films of its vintage, it is ribboned with problems, some of them severe. But it also has a giddy energy about it, with more verve and stylistic experimentation than any of the studio's output in a very, very long time. All told, it is more or less exactly the movie that you would expect if you were told that the Aladdin directors had been forced into a project that they didn't especially care about, but had far too much professional integrity to put their names to anything that wasn't up to snuff.

I shall assume for the moment that you are familiar with the mythological Hercules, or in the original Greek form, Heracles (in the even more original Greek form, Ἡρακλῆς), because if you are not, then read something sometime. I think, upon reflection, that what so bothered my adolescent self when the movie was new in 1997 is that I was apparently more familiar with Heracles than the filmmakers were; or at least, more than they cared to demonstrated. The film Hercules may be many good things, but a serious treatment of the Heracles/Hercules myth traditions it plainly not one of them; it feels a bit like the story put together by someone who is sort of aware of the concept of Greek mythology, but never actually went to the trouble of learning any of the details.

Thus we have such eyebrow-raising notions as: Hercules (primarily voiced by Tate Donovan; he's voiced by Josh Keaton as a young teen, and sung by Roger Bart, which still doesn't hit the record for most voices for a single Disney character) was the son of Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar), rather than one of Zeus's many bastard children, thus obviating the rampant, angry jealousy that Hera feels for the young man, which in turn drives pretty much every subsequent event in the "Twelve Labors" tradition; this means that Hercules was a proper god, but was turned into a mortal by Hades (James Woods), who was profoundly angry at having to serve as lord of the Underworld, and had a crafty, years-long plot to overthrow Zeus, which would come to naught if Hercules lived to adulthood; Hercules was trained by a satyr named Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), not a centaur named Chiron (Philoctetes was a human, among other things).

I could go on, but let's just save time: if something happens in Disney's Hercules it is probably very close to something that happened in the original mythology, but just not quite all the way there. The one exception is that though Hercules was famous, he did not, in fact, become a massive celebrity with shoe and soft-drink deals, nor a palatial home which was a popular attraction for teenybopper tourists. Why, hello, if it's not one of those severe problems that I was talking about just back then!

In what I am beginning to think of as the curse of Renaissance-Era Disney (after the turn of the millennium, it became the curse of DreamWorks Animation), Hercules suffers from a hideous surfeit of modern-tinged gags: some of which work a bit, and some of which don't work at all. In the former category, we have for a certainty, James Woods as Hades: it's hard to say if he's parodying an agent or a studio executive, but it's certainly one of those things. He's all fast-talking and Yiddishisms and quick blow-ups that are quickly tamped down, and despite my general disdain for anachronistic humor, Hades is the one element of this film that I've always conceded works, absolutely and without reservation. Reluctantly, I have to add DeVito's performance as Phil to the list of good comedy as well: though I would dearly love to say that his snarling Noo York mannerisms, in what amounts, more or less, to a parody of Burgess Meredith's Mickey from Rocky and all those other "angry coach" characters, falls completely flat, there is a certain sarcastic zest to the character that does actually suit the film's tone much better than I remember.

On the other hand - far, far on the other hand - we have Hades's minions, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), whose bumbling slapstick is not without its low-key charms, but whose personalities are ultimately, recognisably, those of Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer, and it is in this two figures more than any other that the film's anachronistic comedy really starts to cross from amusing to annoying. Wait, tell a lie! I have forgotten about Paul Shaffer's performance as Hermes, the gods' messenger. Yes, that Paul Shaffer, and the character design and vocal inflections don't ever let you forget it. It may be nothing but a matter of personal taste, but I don't know that there's ever a right moment for your Greek myth comedy to be interrupted by a caricature of David Letterman's band leader.

Right in the middle, there's the girl in the picture, Megara (named for the mythological Heracles's first wife; he killed their children when driven made by Hera, and in some versions, he killed her as well. Little to none of this makes it into the Disney version). She is written as a 1940s screwball heroine and played by Susan Egan (the first Belle in the stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast) in a voice that suggests, very strongly, somebody's very best Bernadette Peters impersonation. Meg is a fascinating problem: in some ways, she's one of the most amusing characters in the film, and her design - a very angular caricature of a slender, curvy woman, with a triangle face and a huge mess of hair that gives her a rough "T" shape in profile - is probably the most cartoonishly appealing in the whole movie. But Egan's performance is all over the map, from absolutely spot-on faux-Rosalind Russell snark to the absolutely dead-fish reading of some of her lines. It doesn't help that she's also a profoundly functional character, existing largely to drive the plot and not possess any value of her own. Basically, when she's funny, she's immensely funny; and when she's not, she's as flat and boring as can be.

What saves the film from its ping-pong rhythm back and forth between good gags and bad gags is that ultimately there is one clear attitude guiding the whole piece, if not necessarily a consistent tone. Hercules has the same anarchic spirit of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or anything by Tex Avery, probably the most Warner-ish Disney feature made to that point, and it's this spirit that makes some of the anachronisms work as well as they do: at heart, the only logic of the film is the logic of pure cartooning, where the only thing that matters is the rightness of a gag in the moment of its execution.

This mentality reflects not only upon the script, but upon the whole look of the movie. Meg, I have mentioned, is an unusuallystylised character; there is not any reason to single her out in this regard. Every character is just as oddly shaped, making the advances towards a looser caricatured style in Aladdin seem positively sedate in comparison. As a point of reference, this is the film for which Hercules's lead animator, Andreas Deja, saw fit to design the character's ears after a type of sweet bun he used to eat as a child in Germany; I can think ofno clearer indication that the production design mentality is fundamentally at odds with Disney's traditional feints towards realism than that.

It's also a bright, colorful movie, and again it here outdoes the previous standard-bearer, Aladdin: the pantheon of god on Olympus is a particularly good example, for each character seems to be defined according to which solid color they have been painted. It is overall a rather more minimalist aesthetic than we're used to from the studio; even their '40s and '50s cartoons had rather more detail and a broader palette. As is so often the case when Disney makes choices to fundamentally alter the look of one of its films, the results are fairly exhilarating, if for no other reason that that they are fresh and unexpected.

The stripped-down, cartoon design across the film is not met by the animation itself, which remains as detailed and fluid as we might expect from Disney at its peak; rather surprisingly, the film cost just as much as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, despite looking to all appearances much, much less ambitious. Part of this is because of the exceptionally large animation staff dedicated to the project: Deja has spoken of his amazement at seeing his crew of assistant increase threefold. Part of it also because all of that peppy cartoon logic carries with it the price tag of significantly more involved character movement: Nik Ranieri, the supervising animator for Hades, found that keeping up with the speed of James Woods's frequently ad-libbed dialogue was a much harder task than he'd ever faced at the studio. Effort well-rewarded, mind you: Hades is nothing if not an excellent example of comic character animation, with a propensity for bursting into red flames (his hair is a spike of flickering blue fire throughout) and a certain malleability that makes him a perfect vehicle for any number of physical gags. He is a throwback to the earliest Disney features, when certain characters were left deliberately unrealistic so that more absurd physical stress could be put upon their bodies for humorous effect; and really, everyone in the movie is more or less like that. Hades, though, as is so often the case for a villain in an animated movie, is the most instantly delightful and memorable.

The freedom given to the humor and the animation by the Tex Avery cartoon sensibility has its drawbacks, of course. Part of it is that some of the gags are so hip that they're just terrible, such as the most egregious anachronism (a joke about calling "IX-I-I" in an emergency never fails to make me sad, not least because it is merely one of a great many lines where it becomes clear that the writers didn't understand that Greece and Rome are not the same thing), or really anything involving Pain and Panic. The film also has virtually no emotional heart; and there is absolutely nothing wrong with a film that lacks emotional heart, except that it's at odds with all of the discipline of the Disney animators. Even as I praise the fluidity and invention and overall quality of the animation, I can't help but think it's unnecessary: the Looney Tunes proved that the same attitude can do just fine - even better! - when matched to a more limited, cheaper animation style. The elaborate character animation is a function of Disney's tradition of establishing character through motion; except that the figures in Hercules don't have any character, or at least no more than can be sketched out in a few words by reference to archetypes. And when the film drifts into flat-out character moments, it grinds to a halt, such as in the excessively tepid "yearning" song, "Go the Distance", or the dramatic bits in the third act.

Having raised the issue of the music: Alan Menken returns, this time teaming up with lyricist David Zippel, a man of some note who is certainly no Howard Ashman, nor even a Stephen Schwartz, although it would be wrong to say that his lyrics are simply awful. He matches the light, breezy mood of the film with light, breezy pieces mostly written for a chorus of Muses, that Menken scores using some fairly simple gospel motifs; except for Meg's big song "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)", which is rather a '50s-style girl group number. Let us be polite and say that Menken wasn't challenging himself with this soundtrack: it is undeniably fun for the most part (the opening song in particular, an expository mangling of Greek creation mythology titled "The Gospel Truth" in apparently unconscious irony, is especially zesty), but there's nothing here that you go about humming for days like "Be Our Guest" or "Under the Sea". In this, at least, the songs fit with the movie, being similarly cheerful in the moment without leaving any lasting impressions.

At times, the movie's energy shades into unpleasant hectic chaos; the hydra battle especially, yet another example of 2-D animation being awkwardly wedged in with CGI, coupled with camera movements that make the whole thing look rather more like a video game than a movie. And with the longest running-time of any Disney feature since Fantasia, Hercules does certainly wear out its welcome: one of the chief appeals of the old Looney Tunes shorts was after all that they told their story in 7 minutes and got out. There's an awful lot of manic energy to go around in Hercules, and just about the exact same time that it turns into a comic adventure rather than being a comedy about an adventurer (when Hades's plan comes to fruition, kicking off the third act), it hits the wall where one is definitely ready for it it be over.

Still, it's an awful lot of fun all in all, and after so many serious coming-of-age stories and historical romances and literary adaptations, a flat-out cartoon was more than overdue at Disney. I suppose that its the lack of emotional heft that led to it being something of a washout at the box-office: not a failure, but it became the first Disney feature since The Rescuers Down Under and The Little Mermaid that couldn't break $100 million at the U.S. box office. It's not an especially "nice" movie, and it's probably the most flat-out childish film of the Disney Renaissance: this is both its great triumph and ultimately the reason that it's so hard to care about it all that much.

4 comments:

John Holdun said...

Maybe it's the sleep deprivation or a particularly grand Thursday morning but I found your Hercules/Heracles/Ἡρακλῆς joke to be hilarious. And I remember that honeybun ear design thing, too. Super weird.

It occurred to me while reading this that Hades is sort of the anti-Genie. They're both supernatural fast-talking blue comedians but Genie is energetic and optimistic while Hades is low-key and devious. Almost certainly unintentional since Hades, as I recall, was intended to be much more sinister before James Woods let loose on the script, but still an interesting point given the production schedule, I think.

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Pan Miluś said...

I wish they would went all the way and just made it one big parody of greek mythos since all the greek mythology in-jokes work well in this one.

I love Gerald Scarfe desing in this, especialy the Cyclops (I'm a big fan of the Wall BTW) Some wonderfull visuals... and I like Megara songs but as a whole It never come to mind as one of my favorites. It's somewher in the middle