Character Sundays: Megara, Hercules’ Madam of Mystery

Something I haven’t realised in the year and a half I’ve been blogging daily is that I really do like looking at characters. I know for some, the animation is the most important part of a film, but for me, it’s the characters that can make or break everything. So, from now on, all Sunday posts will be character studies.

For me, the character of Megara is by far the most intriguing and ultimately the most interesting of all the characters in the film. It’s almost a shame she’s only a supporting character!

Today’s post is a partial re-post from June 2010 when I took a look at the characters of Disney’s Hercules.

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.

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.

Why I’m A Sucker For Mysterious Characters

I’m not quite sure why, but I have an affinity for characters that are somewhat mysterious or secretive. That’s not to say I like characters who are double agents or who conceal themselves for nefarious purposes. Oh no, it’s the shy characters or those who are hiding something out of necessity that I find the most intriguing.

Take for example the poster below:

Via: flickr

Yes, it is Jenny Wakeman (or XJ-9) from the Frederator series My Life as a Teenage Robot. Notice how she is in silhouette, which adds even more mystique to her figure, as if the shadow is concealing something about her character, which of course it is (hint: she’s a robot).

There are plenty of other example throughout the animated universe, too many in fact, to list here. However they inhabit various places in TV shows and films, from protagonists to sidekicks to members of the supporting cast.

They add a lot to any show or film for a simple reason: they make the audience think.

Mysterious characters represent a discord with their surroundings of which other characters may or may not be aware of. In any case, the audience is almost compelled to put the pieces together or to speculate on the reasons behind such circumstances. Much the same as Lisa Simpson mulling over the enigma that is Nelson Muntz and why that make him even remotely attractive.

This is the key to why I find them so interesting, they give me something much more than the performance on-screen and in so doing, increase my enjoyment immensely.

Another great example is Megara from Disney’s Hercules.

A wonderfully complex character who hides a secret from the hero that is hidden for much of the film. we are forced to guess the reason for her connection to Hades for quite a while as we are kept guessing her motives. Only once they are revealed do we see and can appreciate the complete character for who she is.

Initiating thought within the audience is a key way to maximize their enjoyment. Mysterious characters are a superb way of doing that because they allow for the audience to both connect with the and to ponder the character in a way that is outside what is presented on-screen.

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.

Animaly Appraisal: Hercules Part I

Sooooo, having just finished watching Disney’s Hercules, here are some initial thoughts that will be concluded tomorrow. Released in 1997, Hercules continues the Disney tradition of releasing a “classic” film every year/couple of years which in the preceding years had borne witness to Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Pochahontas. Many people will agree that things began sliding downhill with the departure of Jeffrey Katzenburg for greener pastures prior to Pochahontas. I tend to agree but I would say that the slide was more the result of weak leadership rather than problems in the creative department. That debate is for another time. Today, I’m focusing on the plot, the songs and the background design. Tomorrow it’ll be animation, characters and character design.

Starting with the plot, the basic set-up is that Hades, the brother of Zeus hatches a plan to take over the world but first he must eliminate Zeus’ son Hercules. Through his incompetent minions who fail to finish the task, Hercules doesn’t die but instead turns mortal. We then get a short scene where we discover how he does not fit in with those around him. Once Hercules meets his father Zeus, he goes to find Phil, his trainer. After some training, Hercules is not a striking young lad with enormous strength.

Before he can become a true hero ad return to Mount Olympus, he must first prove himself. Enter Meg, whom he saves from a monster. As it turns out, she’s in the pocket of Hades because of some deal she did with him back in the day and must obey his every whim if she’s ever going to get her soul back. So, to wrap up the entire thing, the planets align and Hades begins his assault on Mounts Olympus. Hercules fights him and saves the day, only for Meg to die along the way and descend into Hell (or whatever the Greeks called it). Hercules offers to swap himself for Meg and in the process regains his immortality and becomes a god. In the end, he decides to stay on earth with Meg after falling in love with her. The End.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward. There are no intricate twists save for Meg’s relationship with Hades. As far as being accurate goes, you’d bet better off watching that Chuck Jones Tom & Jerry cartoon. Of course there is no need for it to be accurate, it’s just a story. If we are willing to believe that a guy can lift a house, we can surely believe that Zeus put Hades down below instead of them casting lots for it.

One things that I absolutely loved about the story was the use of the Muses as sometime narrators and, well, muses! Although they make the film seem more like a play (which really changes the pitch of the film) they add some spice to what could have been just another movie.

Interestingly enough, this was the first Disney movie to be based on mythology rather than the usual fairytale. This choice of source material makes a great change from the many films that went before. No princesses in this movie! it is a shame that they haven’t really returned to it since as Greek plays have been a source of entertainment and creativity for millennia.

With that, onto the songs! I’ll just say it straight out, Aladdin is my all-time favourite when it comes to songs. With that in mind, I rate every film against it and while I try to remember that different films require different musical styles, I have yet to fins one that comes close. The songs in Hercules try to convey the many conflicting emotions being felt by the characters. Be it Hercules wanting to fit in, Phil debating whether to train another hero, the Muses montage in the middle, or Meg’s song where it becomes clear she’s fallen in love.

The key thing to all these songs is the singalongability, which I would rate as OK. Granted the songs match the overall serious tone of the film, but you don’t hear people singing those songs for a reason.

Which lead me on to the score itself. Leaving aside the usual orchestral score that does its job in the dramatic parts, it was great to hear some stuff that could have come straight out of the 1950s. If you know your Ren & Stimpy, you’ll know that John K. resurrected a lot of similar music for his show. Which makes it all the more surprising to hear similar music in a film like this. Be it the clarinet solos, the blares of trumpets or the quick tap of a xylophone. They add enormous emphasis to the lighter parts of the film that could otherwise have been so easily accomplished with an orchestra the same as the rest of the film. This music serves to divide the film into two parts: the fun part and the serious part and makes an excellent, if somewhat sub-conscious contrast between the two.

Personally, I think we need to see much more of this type of music in animated films. The Incredibles score makes some fantastic use of 60s brass and percussion that equals the best that James Bond put out.

Tomorrow, the more interesting stuff. Like backgrounds! Characters! Character designs! (try and guess my favourite).