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Hercules: Special Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Digital Copy Review

Hercules (1997) movie poster Hercules

Theatrical Release: June 15, 1997 / Running Time: 93 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements / Writers: Ron Clements, John Musker, Donald McEnery, Bob Shaw, Irene Mecchi (animation screenplay); Joe Haidar (idea)

Voice Cast: Tate Donovan (Hercules), Joshua Keaton (Young Hercules), Roger Bart (Young Hercules Singing Voice), Danny DeVito (Philoctetes), James Woods (Hades), Susan Egan (Megara), Rip Torn (Zeus), Samantha Eggar (Hera), Lillias White (Lead Muse), Cheryl Freeman (Muse), LaChanze (Muse), Roz Ryan (Muse), Vaneese Thomas (Muse), Bobcat Goldthwait (Pain), Matt Frewer (Panic), Patrick Pinney (Cyclops), Hal Holbrook (Amphitryon), Barbara Barrie (Alcmene), Amanda Plummer (Fate), Carole Shelley (Fate), Paddi Edwards (Fate), Paul Shaffer (Hermes), Jim Cummings (Nessus), Charlton Heston (Narrator), Mary Kay Bergman (Earthquake Lady), Corey Burton (Burnt Man), Keith David (Apollo), Kathleen Freeman (Heavyset Woman), Bug Hall (Little Boy), Kellen Hathaway (Little Boy), Wayne Knight (Demetrius), Aaron Michael Metchik (Ithicles)

Songs: "The Gospel Truth", "Go the Distance", "One Last Hope", "Zero to Hero", "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)", "A Star is Born"

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There is no disputing that the Disney animated classic had lost some of its luster by the late 1990s. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King had lifted the tradition to new heights both critically and commercially. Perhaps inevitably, the films that followed -- Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules --
were unable to generate quite the same level of excitement. Each sold more tickets than the vast majority of their contemporaries, but the box office numbers were noticeably down from their recent predecessors. Reviews remained favorable, but not as overwhelmingly enthusiastic as on the cornerstones of Disney's animation renaissance. Accolades diminished from music category dominance and general ubiquity to at best a song or score nomination.

Despite all that, when we now look back at the studio's late-'90s animated features, it's easy to appreciate how very enjoyable they are. Hercules, written and directed by Aladdin and Little Mermaid duo John Musker and Ron Clements, especially stands out as superior entertainment. Its ingredients of comedy, Broadway-esque musical numbers, heroism and villainy are not a significant departure from what Disney animation had been doing at the time. You could easily argue that it treads no new ground and its artistic ambitions are even downgraded from the historical Pocahontas and dark Hunchback. But none of that matters because Hercules offers a tremendous amount of fun.

Hercules and Phil take a ride on Pegasus the flying horse in Disney's 1997 animated feature "Hercules."

Greek mythology is a bit of a change from the fairy tales and talking animals we most associate with Disney, but the beliefs the material represents are so far removed from sacrosanctity that even at the height of the political correctness movement, they give the filmmakers a license for irreverence and outrageousness. Hercules is very contemporary in its sense of humor and its sensibilities. It supplies all the things you expect from a 1990s Disney cartoon: romance, comic henchmen and sidekicks, a variety of musical influences, and a high quantity of jokes at varying volumes. Hercules is most often compared to Aladdin and that's fair because it successfully applies a similar brand of comedy and storytelling that feels more unconventional than it is to its own ancient setting.

Told with a Greek chorus of five Muses, who bring a Gospel and R & B sound to their expository numbers, Hercules opens with the birth of its titular protagonist to the Gods Zeus and Hera. Informed by the Fates, three eyeball-sharing witches, that Hercules stands as the one threat to his plan to take over Mount Olympus when the planets align in 18 years, Zeus' underworld-ruling brother Hades (deliciously voiced by James Woods) has his shape-shifting henchmen Pain and Panic poison the baby. They drain the newborn Hercules of most but not all of his divine power. Adopted as a foundling by a mortal couple, Hercules grows up with great strength. He's also kind of an outcast and a klutz.

When he learns of his origin and discovers that proving himself as a hero will restore his godly powers and welcome him back to Mount Olympus, Hercules (now Tate Donovan), reunited with his flying horse Pegasus, urges the satyr Phil (Danny DeVito) to train him. When the hot-tempered, flame-headed Hades learns that the only prophesied obstacle to his plot to overthrow his brother remains alive and potent, he has Megara (Susan Egan), a pretty, good-hearted, weak-ankled damsel in servitude to him, use her feminine wiles to bring about Herc's demise in exchange for her freedom.

Functioning as a Greek chorus, the Muses give their songs a Gospel flavor. Meg isn't crazy about Hades' plan for her fulfilling her servitude to him.

There's really nothing about Hercules that doesn't work and work very well at that. Although the comedy is very much a product of the late 1990s, it hasn't aged badly at all.
Some of the jokes, like "Air Herc" sandals and Hercules' Grecian Express credit card complete with Roman numerals, are perhaps a bit obvious, but there is still a wealth of wit on display. The film knows its Greek mythology as well as most viewers, but has no qualms about straying from it or having fun at its expense.

The casting and voice acting are both inspired, with Woods giving us probably animation's funniest antagonist to date. The music by Alan Menken (with lyrics by David Zippel) is remarkably good and infectious, advancing the plot and hitting necessary rhythms without a sense of obligation or formula. Though there are no jaw-dropping sets like the Beast's ballroom or sequences like Lion King's wildebeest stampede, the colorful, cartoony animation is most agreeable, even when it's clearly implementing CGI, as on the head-regenerating Hydra that Hercules has to slay.

Hercules fell just short of the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, becoming the first Disney animated feature to miss that milestone since 1990's The Rescuers Down Under. It finished just 17th among 1997 releases by North American gross, a slight drop from Hunchback (#15 for 1996) and a steeper fall from those before it (which never got any lower than Pocahontas' 4th place). It received a single Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, with Hercules' "Go the Distance" (covered in the end credits by Michael Bolton) losing to Titanic's "My Heart Will Go On."

The rare animated feature to never get an official follow-up during Disney's sequel craze, Hercules did yield a swift direct-to-video prequel in 1998's Hercules: Zero to Hero, which simply branched together three pilot episodes from the then-imminent animated series. Zero to Hero has never shown up on DVD and it doesn't turn its predecessor's long-awaited Blu-ray debut into one of Disney's 2-Movie Collections. Instead, Hercules arrives in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Digital Copy combo pack that is, quite laughably, billed a "Special Edition."

In disappointing but not surprising or terribly significant news, Hercules has had its original 1990s Walt Disney Pictures opening and closing logos replaced with the current, CG-animated one on both discs here (which adds about 30 seconds to the runtime). It seems to me that if we're that concerned with branding, the new logo could simply play at the start of the disc (as it does) while the movie still retained its original screens and music. My guess is that it's going to be a long time until we see the film's original studio logos restored.

Watch a clip from Hercules:

Hercules Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Portuguese), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; Blu-ray only: English, Portuguese
DVD Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: August 12, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as new standalone DVD ($19.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Limited Issue DVD (November 9, 1999) and repackaged as Gold Classic Collection DVD (August 1, 2000)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Hercules' impeccable Blu-ray presentation offers a welcome and significant improvement over the letterboxed Limited Issue DVD transfer the film received in 1999 and had repackaged for the Gold Classic Collection the following year. The package doesn't mention an aspect ratio, but the picture measures 1.78:1, matting a touch more than the 1.66:1 prior DVDs but also gaining some picture on the sides (and utilizing the format's full resolution). The film may be approaching its 20th anniversary, but that's tough to believe seeing this flawless presentation, which is just as sharp, spotless and vivid as it ought to be.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is every bit as awesome. Robust and full of directional effects, it wows just as a brand new animated film might and the musical numbers are kept to volume levels consistent with the rest so as not to have you lunging for the remote.

Apart from the changed logos addressed above, this feature presentation leaves nothing to be desired.

Danny DeVito lets his hat promote one '90s family film while recording lines for another in "The Making of 'Hercules.'" Ricky Martin performs Spanish language theme song "No Importa La Distancia" from the fiery depths of Hades.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Hercules adds just one minor extra to the pitiful two that joined it on DVD.
All three of them are presented in standard definition.

First and most significant is "The Making of Hercules" (9:29), an utterly '90s electronic press kit piece promoting the film with cast, crew, and musical contributor comments and some behind-the-scenes footage.

Ricky Martin's music video "No Importa La Distancia" (4:47), the Spanish version of "Go the Distance", finds the Latin singer (and Spanish voice of Hercules) wearing a powder blue suit in a fiery underworld performance that's interspersed with random film clips. Excluded yet again, Michael Bolton must be feeling sad somewhere.

The Blu-ray-only new bonus feature is a "Zero to Hero" sing-along last released to VHS in the summer of 1997. The kind of hero Phil is looking to train stands tall on the DVD's main menu.

Finally, new to five-inch disc, a "Zero to Hero" sing-along (2:47) places animated lyrics over 1.33:1 clips from the film.
Pulled from the 1997 Sing-Along Songs video The Modern Classics, it has slightly more value than just the film with plain subtitles, but I'm guessing this won't be enough to satisfy Hercules fans who have been waiting fifteen years for a better edition.

And that's all we get. No Zero to Hero movie, no random episode of the star-studded animated TV series it launched, no nostalgia-inducing Movie Surfers special, and none of the substantial supplements that Disney animated features lend to, like art galleries, deleted scenes, audio commentary, or even trailers and TV spots.

One hardly needs to mention the one Hercules DVD extra (excluding "full-color character artwork on disc") that doesn't make the cut here: two pages of film recommendations displaying the covers of six of the few Disney family titles available on DVD ahead of it.

Adding insult to injury, though newly-authored and safely under DVD-9 capacity, the new DVD doesn't bother including the "Zero to Hero" sing-along, but does provide the featurette and the heretofore unadvertised Ricky Martin music video.

The discs open with ads for Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition, Planes: Fire & Rescue, and next Disney Fairies movie Legend of the Neverbeast, followed by a Pinocchio-themed anti-smoking spot. The Sneak Peeks listing plays ads for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Parks, and The Lion King musical.

The animated menu applies an obscure musical cue to a montage of clips playing within a border of Greek columns, while lightning bolt cursors liven up the listings. The Blu-ray does not resume playback or allow you to set bookmarks, but it does remember where you left off on the film once you get back to the menu after powering down.

The plainly labeled blue and gray discs share a side-snapped keepcase, joined by a booklet with your Disney Movie Rewards/Anywhere code and a Disney Movie Club ad and topped by an embossed slipcover reproducing the same artwork below.

Though she tries to fight it, Meg falls in love with Hercules, of course.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Disney's Hercules has never looked or sounded better than it does on Blu-ray. That's great news for those wanting to own this charming musical comedy in the best quality available. Regrettably, though, this lightweight platter represents a major missed opportunity to surround this popular film with more substantial bonus material, even something readily available like an episode of the TV series. Fans of this film won't deprive themselves of this set's dazzling HD presentation, but non-completists and those on the fence might, which is unfortunate for such an enduringly entertaining movie.

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Related Reviews:
New: Tarzan Bears Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Clements & Musker: The Little Mermaid Treasure Planet The Princess and the Frog Aladdin The Great Mouse Detective
The Hunchback of Notre Dame Mulan Pocahontas The Lion King Beauty and the Beast The Emperor's New Groove
Danny DeVito: Matilda | James Woods: Recess: School's Out | Rip Torn: Men in Black
Tate Donovan: Nancy Drew | Bobcat Goldthwait: Scrooged | Susan Egan: Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure

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Reviewed August 9, 2014.



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