Anomaly Appraisal: Hercules Part II
This is a continuation of yesterday’s Part I, where I covered the plot and music.
Today I’m going to cover the animation, the characters and the character’s designs. First off, the animation is the same fine quality that we have come to expect from Disney. Everything is polished to perfection and leaves no stone unturned. The film itself is an artful blend of traditional and CGI although for the most part, the two remain in the areas where they excel most.
For the most part, the character animation is the preserve of the traditionalist. Characters are hand-drawn and move with grace around the screen. Special mention should be given to the Muses who are almost constantly dancing around the screen. Their movements are fluid and completely suit their stylized design (more on that later).
There are a number of sequences in the film where the camera flies about huge sets, that for the most part, are hand-painted backgrounds draped over a 3-D model. These shots work well and add plenty of depth to the film. CGI is also used for the first creature that Hercules fights in the gorge, where it’s use is pretty obvious mainly because after over a decade, technology tends to improve rather visibly. CGI was also used in a few less obvious areas, like carts or the platform that Hercules must pose on for his portrait. These subtle uses blend in perfectly with the hand-drawn surroundings and serve to improve the appearance of the film. The old adage that less is more certainly holds true here.
Character movement within the film is generally excellent. It was nice to see some cartoony elements such as rubberband legs and some squash and stretch popping up here and there. Their limited use was wise as unlike the Genie in Aladdin, there was no character (aside from Hades) that was in need of it.
As you’ve probably noticed, I am not all that great at analysing the technical parts of the film. That’s the result of not being an animator. If I was, I could sit and yap on and on about how God is in the details of a film like this. Where simple character actions such as which way the characters are looking can make all the difference in the world. Hercules is full of such things, especially in the garden scene, but I am not one to be able to comment on their use. Let’s just say I like that they exist.
Moving right along, we come to an area that I do feel I have considerable ability to comment on: character along with character design, starting with Hercules.
First off, the guy comes off as more of a jerk than is perhaps wise for a film where he’s supposed to earn our sympathy. Sure he has it at the start, when he falls from Mount Olympus. he even has it when he detroys the marketplace in the village. When does he lose it? After his training of course. This is where he begins to become a tad pretentious, which by the end of the Zero to Hero montage, is pretty much full-blown. He’s full of himself at this point. He may still pine to join his father, but after the scene in the temple I thought he pulled of the trick of being the world’s biggest crybaby.
He is brash, he believes that he will earn something just because. While he is equal parts confident and cowardly, his successes imbue him with a sense of entitlement. His arrogance towards Phil is exemplary of the kind of character that I personally hate. OK, its understandable that he is angry in that scene, but he is rather self-centred and willing to act without thinking of others. This changes once he falls in love with Meg and is willing to risk life and limb to save her. Alas, this arrives very late in the film with the damage almost already done. Having said all that, Hercules is the hero and the audience does connect with him at the end. He is a strong protagonist but he is upstaged by the more complex people around him.
Hercules is supposed to be the Alpha male albeit a flawed one. His pride is all too obvious and it saps out sympathy for him. After he becomes famous, he’s not unhappy, he loves it, he just hasn’t gotten what he wants and feels he should get it without having to truly earn it. He believes that he is perfect. Hercules is not fatally flawed as he redeems himself by the end of the film, it’s just that it takes until the end of the film for use to accept that he has changed. Creating a flawed character that an audience like means walking a very fine line. For the most part, Hercules stays on the right side, but only just.
With our hero protagonist being so rough around the edges, it is a relief to say that the other main characters are not nearly so unfortunate. Phil is the trainer who just seems to have a string of bad luck with his students. Voiced by Danny DeVito who adds a grough, world-weary tone to the charcter, Phil is the foil to Hercules for much of the film. Phil is definitely the good-guy, even more so than Hercules. He drives Hercules to succeed and shows true compassion when he learns the pain that Meg has gone through. He is rewarded at the end when his dream comes true.
Megara is our damsel in distress, although her distress is much more complex than at first sight. She is the romantic interest of Hercules although it takes a while for her to return the favour. Her relationship with Hades is revealed (too late in the film in my opinion) as one that she deeply regrets and results in her desire to help Hercules clashing spectacularly with her obligations to Hades. She is a character constantly in crisis and swings wildly between the Rock that is Hercules and the hard places that is Hades. She is a girl who was placed all her trust in two men (her former boyfriend and Hades) and ends up being betrayed bitterly by both. All of these aspects combine to make Meg the most interesting character in the film. Even though she is infinitely more flawed than the hero, it is she who we sympathize with the most.
Hades is the bad guy. Given a fantastic lease of life thanks to James Woods who is let free and loose and makes the character very much the fun-loving diabolical villain that he is. His temper is explosive which is emphasised with the fire that is his hair. He is not one to manipulate people, but he no problem using them for his own devices, such as Meg. Pain and Panic are his two assistants. Now these are two characters that for want of a better word, are superfluous. Watching this film 10 years after the fact, they come across as two, very stock, very mid-1990s Disney characters in that they are nervous, clumsy and serves as no more than a plot device in abducting Hercules. Compared to the likes of Iago in Aladdin or Cruella DeVil’s henchmen, they are too comical to take seriously.
The various minor characters in the film are wholesome, although many are not on screen long enough to display any significant personality traits, save perhaps for the Muses. Here are five women who, despite doing little more than linking the various parts of the film together, nonetheless display some strong characteristics. They are straight-talking and make it known. Personally, I like the Muses. They might be mostly narrat
ors but they have a certain amount of [ahem] appeal and play it off on the audience, which is no bad things as far as I’m concerned.
The character designs are a sight to behold. Some are fairly normal in appearance (such a Phil and Pegasus, no big surprises there) and some are extraordinary. There is one average looking bloke who I’ll get to in a minute.
Starting with Hades, here’s a guy with a fiery temperament and what better way to display that than with some fire! Hades’ hair matches his many moods from normal (blue and short) to angry (blue, longer flames) to steaming mad (red, roaring flames shooting straight up). In contrast, when he is happy, his hair turns bright blue and cozily swirls in the air. Hades’ grey appearance matches his home in the underworld and his presence on Mount Olympus could not be more noticeable, with dark clouds persistently hovering over him. His large stature stands in stark contrast the the many skeletal spirits that live in the underworld which helps set him apart in his role as their caretaker.
As interesting a design as Hades is, it is the females in this film where the character design excels. Staring with Meg, who is an interesting mix of sharp edges and curves. Not being the typical Disney image of womanhood works in Meg’s favour. her clothes are plain, she is bereft of jewellery and her face is rather small.
That being said, the way Meg displays her emotions through her movements is unique in the film. She walks with a certain amount of contempt, perhaps because of the former rejection. There is no suggestion of promiscuousness, but rather that everyone except herself can see her beauty. Her eyes play a critical role in this as she often narrows them when talking to someone but opens them wide to show astonishment or happiness.
Meg holds herself in a way that suits her status as a betrayed person. Her arms are often folded and she tends to keep them to herself, with the exception of the garden scene and accompanying song where she lets herself feel much freer as she experiences the closest thing to happiness for the first time in a long time. Ultimately, Meg is the plain Jane girl that manages to capture the heart of the hero through a winning combination of both beauty and her character. Her design is a similar winning combination that emphasis that beauty is more than skin deep.
Our hero Hercules is a curious case. As a baby, he displays all the associated cuteness and playful movements. As a teenager, he has grown taller, is leaner and has the usual teenage issues with clumsiness. By the time he is an adult, he has become a strapping young lad with muscles large enough to match his strength.
Overall, his design is OK. Where Hercules does fall flat is his face. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but it would appear to be a combination of his nose and chin. Both are way to large. The chin in particular sticks out like a sore thumb but does not define a strong jaw in the same way that Gaston does in Beauty and the Beast. Combined with a very prominent nose, Hercules come off not so much ugly, as, well, not quite as universally appealing as perhaps he should be.
The most stylized designs of the entire film belong to the Muses and the gods and make both clearly distinct from the humans. The gods are brightly coloured and appear to radiate with light. Their features are more exaggerated either being more delicate (in the case of the goddesses) or pronounced (in the case of the gods).
The Muses take their design from ancient Greek pottery that they interact with throughout the film. They are suitably curvy and move in a similar fashion, which is not surprising seeing as they dance as well as sing. The five of them have their own appearance and character too although this is not developed much in the film. They are full of life and are constantly dancing in ways that suggest they have a real passion for performing. It would seem (from the end credits) that professional dancers were used as reference for the Muses. I’d like to think that while this may be the case, the animators were given enough room to express their skills. The Muses remain the most entertaining aspect of the film, so much so, that I would gladly watch an entire film with just them in it!
Overall, Hercules is not perfect, although in fairness, no film ever is. It is a solid Disney product that was perhaps treated a bit harshly by US audiences on its theatrical release. Personally, I think it is well worth taking the time to watch it again and viewed for its animation and characters if not for its plot.
I must give a shout out to Disney Dreams for all the wonderful screencaps. Much more than a repository, the site is very much a superb source for Disney fans with everything they could possibly need.