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Hercules DVD Review

Hercules

Theatrical Release: June 27, 1997 / Running Time: 93 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker

Voice Cast: Tate Donovan (Hercules), Danny DeVito (Philoctetes), James Woods (Hades), Susan Egan (Megara), Rip Torn (Zeus), Bobcat Goldthwait (Pain), Matt Frewer (Panic), Samantha Eggar (Hera), Paul Shaffer (Hermes), Hal Holbrook (Amphitryon), Barbara Barrie (Alcmene), Wayne Knight (Demetrius), Charlton Heston (Narrator)

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


Review by Jake Lipson

The names Ron Clements and John Musker may not be world-famous, but their movies are. Two of the most gifted people to ever work in the field of animation, they helped usher in the Third Golden Age of Disney feature animation. Although all the studio's hopes were laid on the expensive 1985 epic The Black Cauldron (which bombed at the box office and was pulled from theatrical release after just two weeks) it was Musker and Clements who put Disney back on the right track with their 1986 mystery adventure The Great Mouse Detective. (It was the first Disney animated feature to extensively use computer graphics, with which the climactic Big Ben sequence was created.)

Next, they pitched two projects: The Little Mermaid and "Treasure Island in space." In the former, they dived under the sea to give voice to a little mermaid who dreamed of something more and restored Walt Disney Feature Animation to its former glory. Their tale had it all - romance, magic, drama, action, and irresistible music. It seemed impossible for these veteran directors to top themselves again, but when their attempts to set sail for a space version of Robert Louis Stevenson's coveted island were once again rejected by the studio, they waded into the troubled production of Aladdin, worked their magic and turned it into another rousing hit. So, with Hans Christian Andersen and Arabian nights already under their belt, what were they to do next?

They still wanted to cast off for Treasure Planet, but despite Aladdin being the #1 animated film ever (at the time) and the first to cross the $200 million mark, they didn't have that privilege. Then-studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg didn't believe in the project and told them to do one more bankable project first. Then, they would finally be able to make their dream project. Otherwise, he would never allow them to chart a course for Treasure Planet while he was with the studio. They agreed. (For the record, eventually they did get to make Treasure Planet. Even though Katzenberg was fired before Musker and Clements had finished directing the required bankable picture, company execs held up their part of the deal once Musker and Clements had finished theirs.) Their "bankable picture" was Hercules, a comical epic of Ancient Greece's golden age of powerful gods and extraordinary heroes.

Five musical muses tell us the story of Hercules (Tate Donovan), son of the gods. Hades sends his bumbling minions Pain and Panic to murder the toddler when the Three Fates reveal that he's the only one who can stand in the way of his takeover plans, assumes him dead, and continues plans for his uprising. But only part of the plan was successfully carried out - Hercules was kidnapped and turned mortal keeping only his godlike strength, but discovered before the job could be finished.

…And - speak of the devil - shortly before Hades begins to move his plans into action, Hercules reappears. Once a troubled young man shunned by the community because of his uncontrollable strength, he has now discovered the truth of his origins and is on a quest to have his godhood restored so he can go home to Mount Olympus. To do so, he must prove himself a true hero on Earth With the help of his personal trainer Phil (Danny DeVito) and his winged horse Pegasus, as well as the encouragement and support of his father, Zeus (Rip Torn) he defeats monster after monster with no apparent weakness. The key to his success - or demise - is in his love for the beautiful Meg (Susan Egan.) Can he go the distance and become Phil's all-time champ, or will his one weakness make him the all-time chump?

I love this movie. Sure, it's not quite up there with The Lion King but there's a lot to like about Hercules and it is a fine, funny entry into the Disney animated classics canon. The story is solid and engaging; the pacing brisk and breathlessly fast; the characters likeable and/or hateable, the animation stylized and gorgeous; the music catchy, gospel, and effective; and the comic view of Greek mythology along with the free adaptation of it is refreshingly welcome, even moreso having read a Greek epic. The opening joke is priceless, and the movie is one of the funniest ever produced by the studio. It's also worth mentioning that instead of going the usual scary route with their villain, the filmmakers have made Hades hateable in a completely different way. He is as menacing, disgusting, and evil as any other Disney baddie, but he too is hilarious instead of frightening. (Note that if you were to draw a pair of glasses on him, Hades - the devil - would look an awful lot like Jeffrey Katzenberg, with whom the directors had to make a deal in order to allow Treasure Planet to be made.)

However you see it, Hercules is very highly recommended movie viewing. I just wish I could say the same thing about this DVD.

Buy Hercules from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.66:1 Non-anamorphic widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English
Closed Captioned
THX-Certified
Release Dates: August 1, 2000 (Gold Collection)
November 9, 1999 (Limited Issue)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99

Video: Just look at it!

Hercules is presented in a THX-certified transfer in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but is not anamorphically enhanced. It was reportedly sourced from the same transfer as the laserdisc edition. The Limited Issue DVD was released two years after its theatrical run, and not surprisingly for such a recent movie, it looks great.

The unique and stylized animation comes across very strongly, and the distinctive use of bright, bold colors is as wowing as ever here. I didn't notice any problems as far as grain, smudges, or print defects of any kind. But this transfer falls short of Disney's more recent efforts like The Lion King or Musker and Clements' finally-made Treasure Planet. Those transfers were rich and lush, almost popping off the screen in their awesome wonder. The Hercules transfer, while unarguably very good, lacks the depth and texture of those, and there's definitely room for improvement here.

Audio: What's all that noisy racket?

Here, you can hear Hercules in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound in three different languages: English, of course, plus dubs in French and Spanish (the latter features Ricky Martin as the title character's singing voice.) Dialogue, effects, and score are crisp and clear, but it's Alan Menken's catchy, gospel-influenced tunes (with lyrics by David Zippel, who also worked on Mulan) drive the movie. They're the highlight of the soundtrack. Engaging, vibrant, and lively, they are everything I wish the transfer was. The surrounds get a good workout and the sound mix is rather dynamic. This is a very fine audio presentation.

Main Menu Ricky Martin music video James Woods and filmmakers in "The Making of Hercules"

Extras, Extras! Read all about it

As with all of Disney's initial releases on DVD, Hercules is mighty slim on extra content, but we get more here than on any other of the nine original Limited Issue discs. There's a music video (4:46) of "No Importa La Distancia," (literally meaning "the distance is not important"), presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen. This is the Spanish version of "Go the Distance," and is performed by Ricky Martin. The video weaves images of Martin singing with clips from the movie. The movie clips are average VHS quality, and their dullness makes you appreciate the DVD presentation all the more, even if it does lack a certain spark.

There's also a 9 1/2 minute Disney Channel making-of featurette inventively titled "The Making of Hercules". Presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen, this is your standard promotional EPK, heavy on fluff and low on actual insight. Once again there are VHS-quality movie clips edited into the featurette, and in between them we briefly hear from the directors, producer, voice talent, composer Alan Menken, and others, but it's all so rushed and self-congratulatory that none of them really have the chance to say much, and even what we do hear is promotional and largely insubstantial. Still, it's a nice inclusion and is worth watching once.

There's also a couple screens of cover art for other Disney titles that they call "film recommendations." And that's it. So while it's better than Disney's other discs of its time, it's not even close to being the Herculean special edition the movie deserves.

Packaging and Presentation: Just in case you do judge a DVD by its cover…

Hercules was originally released as a Limited Issue title on November 11, 1999, and reissued on August 1, 2000 under the Gold Collection banner with new cover art. Both versions are identical in terms of the movie presentation and extras content. The Limited Issue version featured the same cover art as the previous laserdisc and VHS releases, while the Gold Collection was overhauled with new artwork featuring Hercules' big head behind Hercules, Meg, Phil, Pain and Panic riding on Pegasus. It comes in a standard white keepcase and contains a single sheet of relatively thick paper as an insert. There is the standard list of chapter stops (32 in all) on one side, and an advertisement for other Gold Collection titles on the other. The Limited Issue version is, of course, out of print, but the Gold Collection edition is in print and readily available from most DVD stores with a selection of Disney titles.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Maybe it's because thus far I've been reviewing Gold Collection reissues of barebones Limited Issue discs, but like Pinocchio, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this disc. It boasts a decent if unspectacular transfer, but the extra content is too short and promotional. If you love the movie, go ahead and get it. (A temporary summer price reduction goes into effect June 1.)

Otherwise, give this edition a skip. I'd say Hercules is a prime title to receive a double-disc Special Edition in some form a few years down the line, with a new anamorphic transfer just as good as any other Special Edition Disney has put out and many more in-depth extras. You may have to wait a while, but it will be worth it because this edition just doesn't go the distance. Hopefully, a special edition will.

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Related Reviews:
The Lion King (1994) | | The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Mulan (1998) | Tarzan (1999) | Treasure Planet (2002)

Reviewed March 23, 2004.