The House of Mouse is a juggernaut that is consuming all media one layer at a time. I take my son, who is 13 months old, to the mall to walk in the high heat of summer, and I pass through a Disney store, walking him through. Every mall has one. They are full of tchotchkes and clothes and toys and gewgaws that we are expected to purchase to celebrate our love of the many films, the many heroes. The film, HERCULES, is extremely aware of the shops, and parodies them with the heroic shops celebrating Hercules’ fame.
Some Disney movies stand the test of time, and become part of the language of cinema and culture. THE LION KING, for example, is not necessarily the best film as a work of story, but it transcends its narrative limitations to form its own imaginary world in the zeitgeist, a classic that stands up and holds its place and whose cinematic language bleeds out into other films. HERCULES is not at the level of THE LION KING. It’s narrative failures, I think, are more understandable in comparison to Simba’s story: Simba faces grief and faces a true personal crisis and changes over the course of his journey to the pinnacle of the rock. Hercules’ moment of crisis is much smaller, and requires very little change. It is imposed upon him from the outside, briefly, during a climax, and a woman’s sacrifice saves him. She is the one who changes. No one else really moves from their emotional place but the woman.
Meg, then, is the anchor of the film. James Caan’s scene-chewing and Bobcat Goldthwaite’s anxious demon are stuck in their moment, unchanging, forgettable. Unlike the superior ALADDIN, where Robin Williams’ genie is unforgettable and memorable years later, despite being so clearly tied to the character of the performer, James Caan’s scene-chewing and smoldering is probably not paramount in your mind when I mention the film. The Genie experienced meaningful change, of course, and expressed an exuberant joy. A better film would have cast Robin Williams’ Genie as a happy-go-lucky Hades, revealing a darker nature only in bursts and corners.
Meg, though, is the character that remains after the credits roll. The jaded woman, who partners with Hades and betrays Hades, who has the only good song about denying her true love for the bland and chiseled boy that must be too young for someone with such an old, old soul, while the muses follow her and declare her love for her. She would rather die than see him fail. She pushes the weakened hero aside and takes the falling column upon her own disturbingly fragile-looking (frankly, emaciated and skeletal) body. (Is there a size smaller than zero?) It’s strange, too, that in a film that went out of its way to cast “name” actors in big and small roles, like Rip Torn and the aforementioned James Caan and Bobcat Goldthwait, the standout performance both dramatically and musically was Susan Egan. It shouldn’t be a surprise, because she is a veteran voice actress with credits that include the English dub of Oscar-Winning Miyazaki films. But, it is a testament both to the many unsung and unfamous voice actors and actresses that bring our favorite characters to life, and to the simple narrative concept of change. (Famously, the Jimmy Neutron movie promotional materials prominently featured the work of Sir Patrick Stewart, but never once mentioned the voice actress that performed Jimmy Neutron for years, brilliantly, nor sent her on the same sort of media tour to promote the film that Sir Patrick Stewart was engaged in! I mean, it’s not the King Goobot movie… It’s title and main actor are Jimmy Neutron!) Characters need to change or reveal who they are over the course of a narrative, and walk away different than they walked in. Hercules, Hades, Zeus, etc., all remain unchanged. The pathos of adoptive parents losing their son to the gods is never even given a moment’s exploration. Okay, it’s a kid’s movie, but… Pain is the bread and butter of Pixar, and emotional complexity is part of the cinematic language of kid’s movies, now, ever since Simba stood over the lifeless form of his father and tried to push himself under the king’s lifeless paw.
There’s a thing that happens with movies that don’t work, but studios want to make. The script gets rewritten. It gets rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. Anyone could have predicted that this film would not stand up to time just by looking at the IMDB page: My God, how does any story that is not an episodic television show end up with 18 writers for about an hour and a half of runtime? This may be a sign that the story fundamentally never really worked the way the studio producers and directors desired…