Monthly Archives: September 2011

September 6, 2011

Disney Canon #35: Hercules (1997)


BROOM It’s a film without heart. And there’s really no other way to cut it: it’s detrimental to a movie not to have any heart. I feel like they knew that they were making a movie without heart, but I don’t think they realized that you can’t get through a ninety-minute movie without there being something to latch on to.

BETH We got through it.

ADAM I actually found it a pleasurable experience to watch. I was gripped. I mean, I understood that it was being cheesy and cynical, but I also responded to all the trite devices and the cheap heart-tugging.

BROOM Well, honestly… Beth, I knew that you don’t like things like that, and that affected my watching, but I basically find it totally watchable. There’s nothing that I feel obligated to be annoyed by, and it’s very colorful and lively to watch.

BETH It was colorful but I found the characters very ugly. You guys didn’t? Her hair was so distracting to me.

BROOM I did wonder at one point what was driving it up and back.

BETH It was flat on the top and then went out. And his chin was annoying.

ADAM They were supposed to look like vases.

BROOM They were attempting stylization that I guess didn’t work for you.

BETH And the ears being curls…

BROOM I think Hades is a very well designed and animated character, above their normal standards. I think he’s really well drawn. Did you not find that?

BETH I agree with you. I think they cared more about making him interesting than they did about the other characters. Meg was just like a…

ADAM Throwaway femme fatale?

BETH She had a great voice; who was that?

BROOM Susan Egan. She’s a Broadway-type person. I remember being so glad that they had put this Meg character in there instead of a typical princess — not on some feminist grounds, but just because this is more interesting. Sarcasm, even if it’s all rote sarcasm, is more fun to watch. I didn’t like her mouth very much.

BETH I didn’t either.

BROOM But I did like the kind of presence she was.

ADAM What does it mean that there were no fewer than three characters who were like vaudevillian Jews, and that was the joke?

BROOM Explain.

ADAM Well, Danny DeVito and James Woods, and that other guy, the guy who played Hermes, were all playing the same character…

BROOM Paul Shaffer?? I disagree with this.

ADAM Well, all right, but at very minimum, Danny DeVito and James Woods are doing the same schtick, which is some kind of broad…

BROOM New Yawk!

ADAM Well… “I’m walkin’ here!”

BROOM That was just part of a string of “get it? it’s New York!” jokes.

ADAM I know, but they used both blackness and Jewish-ness as a way to add humorous touches to a pretty, you know…

BETH How did we feel about the gospel singers?

BROOM They were the Muses, did you get that?

BETH I got that.

ADAM I mean, whatever, what else were you going to do with the Muses? At least they were interesting to listen to.

BETH Would it be done that way now?

ADAM What, to use ethnicity as a harmless spice? And joke?

BETH With the obese one? Would they do that now?

BROOM You’re right, they probably wouldn’t do that now, only fourteen years later.

ADAM What I thought about during this entire movie was Tiny Toons.

BETH I thought of Ren and Stimpy because of those two…

ADAM Yeah, Pain and Panic are Ren and Stimpy. But I loved, as a kid, the eyebrow-arching grown-up humor that was the fact that they were doing this vaudeville number in the guise of a kid’s cartoon. I loved that. And I would have thought that the Hades character was so clever… if I had been younger than eighteen. I think by eighteen I was aging out of it.

BROOM Did you see this in the theater?

ADAM Mm-hm.

BROOM Did you enjoy it at the time?

ADAM Mm-hm.

BROOM I remember thinking that it was too noisy and it was trying too hard. The part I was most embarrassed and annoyed by was…

ADAM The celebrity sequence?

BROOM Yes, the “Zero to Hero” sequence — “Disney joking about merchandizing!”

ADAM Which also inspired the most favorable comments in the reviews. I’m sure you will see that they are pleased about the meta, irony, self-referential poking-fun. It’s actually very much like Shrek, which had the same joke in it. Shrek had, like, Jeffrey Katzenberg jokes in it.

BROOM Did it?

ADAM Yeah, and I thought that was really funny, again, at that point.

BROOM I thought Shrek sort of had jokes about Disney, and it felt different there because it wasn’t quite claiming to be at its own expense. Shrek bemusedly finds himself in, you know, John Lithgow’s bad Disneyland, and I thought that was funny at the time because it seemed actually cynical. Whereas here, since they are Disney, they’re clearly trying to score points for supposedly not buying into their own brand.

ADAM Yeah, this was more Jay Leno than David Letterman.

BROOM Well said.

ADAM Which also feels very much of a period.

BROOM But to what you were saying about Tiny Toons — I didn’t watch Tiny Toons, but it was just a weak-tea television version of old Looney Tunes, right?

ADAM No, it was more Jewish-y.

BETH More conceptual.

ADAM Remember when the Muppet Babies would open a door on to, like, old black-and-white movies? I thought that was really funny too. Same kind of funny. It was more quotation.

BROOM But that’s how Looney Tunes were! Why do you think Mae West kept showing up in Looney Tunes?

ADAM Maybe I didn’t get that.

BROOM And I was thinking about Looney Tunes, here, when they would do quotations of pop culture that were initially abrasive to me — like doing The Karate Kid — but then I thought, “well, in old Looney Tunes they would do that too.” They wanted to make a Looney Tunes style movie, so they’re entitled.

BETH Well, Looney Tunes aren’t Disney. So here you feel like you’re betrayed by that.

BROOM I think the problem is that you end up with this mix where you have to think, “well, what kind of movie is this?”

ADAM There were even Looney Tunes sound gags and cutaways.

BROOM If you’re going to make a movie where people get a tall lump on their head after they get bonked…

ADAM I’m glad they only had one Tex Avery number, but they really went for it.

BROOM Which?

ADAM The horse!

BROOM Oh, the Tex Avery seduction.

BETH Oh yeah…!

BROOM Why, what about the horse makes you say it like that?

BETH I don’t know, it was just strikingly porn-horse.

ADAM Didn’t you think it was funny later when Pain was cornered by him and said “But I really was attracted to you!” Maybe I’m more of a sucker for that stuff.

BROOM No, look, I honestly think it’s funny when he says “Hercules is a very common name; remember a few years ago when every boy was called Jason and every girl was called Brittany?” It’s okay with me. But I’m saying the problem is, once you’re in that mode, you think, “well then why do I have to watch her sing “I’m not going to say I’m in love”? It has nothing to do with the type of movie we’re in.”

ADAM It was a good song.


ADAM A professional song.

BETH That song sounded like the introduction to a TV show from 1986. And I like that! But it didn’t make sense. I didn’t think any of the songs made sense.

BROOM I didn’t think any of the songs were well staged. Here’s this song where she’s saying “I won’t admit it” and the chorus is singing “admit it, girl, admit it!” And they staged that with her sort of pacing around in a circle, and they were statues. And that was it! Nothing happened.

ADAM I’ll admit I was a little moved by “Go the Distance.”

BROOM Yeah, I was a little moved by the first one, when he felt like he didn’t belong.

ADAM Yeah, not the Michael Bolton version. Whoever was singing that has a really lovely voice.

BROOM It was Roger Bart, of Broadway fame.

ADAM Well, he sounded really good. And it was moving. I empathize with feeling ostracized because of your superhuman strength and golden tresses.

BROOM I can relate! To feeling like maybe I’m the child of the gods and don’t belong here on earth.

ADAM Isn’t this a little like Harry Potter? In the sense that — Harry Potter is a dumb jock, right? And Hercules and Zeus are clearly, like, dumb, WASPy jocks, but they prevail over the…

BROOM The thing about Harry Potter is that even though he is just a dumb kid, there’s this aura in the storytelling of, like, “He’s very, very important. His feelings are important!” Whereas here, Hercules just happens to be Hercules, and we can laugh at him.

ADAM In fairness to them: I think we all agreed that they pretty much played out Broadway sincerity by this point. So what were they going to do, if not this?

BROOM I just think there was a mismatch between Alan Menken’s doo-wop Broadway, and the spirit of this movie, which wanted to be like BLAM! BLONK! And they shouldn’t really have been singing.

ADAM Well, in the battle between Alan Menken and David Spade, David Spade’s gonna win!

BROOM There is a song in Emperor’s New Groove, right?

ADAM I think there are songs in it, but they’re embarrassing.

BROOM Honestly, I think that movie managed to solve the problem of how to make a movie with no heart it in it that nonetheless obviously has to have some heart in it. Better than this one. It has heart for, like, two scenes, and it’s not laid on thicker than the movie has earned. Here I felt kind of like, “I don’t really care about the love between Megara and Hercules!” I didn’t really care about anything enough.

BETH But they still had to do it.

ADAM I may be more of a sucker for a pretty-boy face than you are.

BROOM You thought he was pretty?

ADAM Yeah.

BETH But his neck was so big!

ADAM Why do you continue to say that as if you think I don’t respond to that??

BROOM Maybe “face” isn’t the word you meant.

ADAM Well, wait ’til you see Tarzan!

BROOM Yeah, he’s not even wearing armor. You can see everything.

ADAM I’m sure there are some gayboy animators.

BROOM What else are there?

ADAM The Jessica Rabbit ones.

BETH I think there’s more love for the male form in this than there was for the woman.

BROOM She had a reasonable figure.

ADAM She was pretty pointy. She did not have breasts at all.

BETH Yes she did.

ADAM But not really.

BROOM She didn’t have cartoon breasts, she had almost normal-sized breasts. Her nose was no good, though.

BETH Her face was not attractive.

BROOM So, I believe I remember — you can look this up — that the character designs were inspired by or possibly with the participation of Gerald Scarfe, the British caricaturist. [ed.: correct.] And Hades kinda did.

ADAM I liked the gods. You laughed at the cocktail party scene at the beginning.

BETH I did.

ADAM It was good stuff!

BETH The fight scene where the gods were counterattacking was nice to look at, I thought. Some nice colors.

BROOM I thought there were a lot of nice layouts. Pretty things to see. I didn’t think that Hercules was as well animated as the lead ought to be. He would often turn his face to the side and you’d see just his lips and eyelids and it would look really weird.

ADAM When they were doing his goo-goo face. That’s more schtick.

BROOM Basically, a good time, to a low standard of sophistication.

ADAM How does this make you feel in retrospect about Aladdin which had some of these traits in embryo?

BETH I think Aladdin is better. The songs were better integrated.

BROOM Yes. I think the spirit of Aladdin is more of a piece with itself. About the staging — in the opening number, when they’re singing that gospel exposition, and she says that Zeus was “too type A to just relax,” and they form themselves into an A…? To me that was a sign that the animators are not feeling the material.

BETH I thought Aladdin was better than this, and that it felt more lush.

ADAM Well if you are tired of jokey, slick, superficial-ness, I believe the next one is Mulan, which is the opposite of that.

BROOM A very, very serious film. Though if you need comic relief it’s got Eddie Murphy in it as a hip dragon!

ADAM I forgot that. You know, they are sort of oscillating on this, if you will, David Letterman versus Maya Angelou… Those are the only two emotional poles of the nineties.

BETH And they can’t decide which to favor.

BROOM But we’re noting a change here — if we’re talking about what’s happening to the public culture — because like we said, this was different from Aladdin. This was more

BETH Letterman?

BROOM Well, Adam, you said more Leno than Letterman…

ADAM More Seinfeld less Home Improvement?

BROOM It just cared less, right?

ADAM You can see September 11 being foreshadowed in our callowness.

BETH That’s why the black ladies were done. Because they could be loose about it. They were like, “we’re not PC anymore, see?”

BROOM I don’t think they thought about it. I think they were just showing their true colors there. I mean, if you go to Broadway now you’ll see those black ladies. You’ll see them in every damn show.

ADAM I’m feeling nostalgic for the different era in which we grew up.

BROOM Yeah. It was a more innocent time, “or whatever.”

ADAM When hipsters did not yet really exist.

BROOM Yeah. This was the height of ironic detachment. At least as far as Disney could conceive it. “You’re wearing his merchandise??” That’s it, that’s the full extent of how naughty they could get.

ADAM Yeah: “Air Jordan”… “Air Herc”!!!!

BROOM “The Hercules Store” was like The Disney Store!

ADAM Both a more innocent and more annoying time.

BROOM And it was annoying then. I remember feeling like I was rooting for it but it didn’t quite land.

[we read the New York Times review]

ADAM So she disagreed. She really liked it! She can’t see through the lacquer of the late nineties.

BROOM If you didn’t know it was coming, you would be relieved by it, after Pocahontas and Hunchback.

ADAM Are the two-thousands really less phony than the nineties?


ADAM I mean, that’s the thing. This feels like a sort of dated phoniness, but does it get any better?

BROOM No, it gets worse. It’s gonna get worse.

ADAM I mean in a larger sense. Yes, David Letterman plus Seinfeld plus Monica Lewinsky equals, you know, nothing… but what comes later?

BROOM Surely there was good culture being made in the nineties. What are some references we can use to redeem that era? Is there really nothing lasting from the nineties? “It’s the nineties, mom!”

BETH Pita chips?

ADAM Titanic?

BROOM There must be something that was really moving. Schindler’s List, I think, holds up. I think what was particularly impressive about it was that it did not feel like the era in which it was made.

ADAM Schindler’s List is early nineties.

BETH That counts.

BROOM Anything else? Books?

BETH Infinite Jest?

BROOM But that’s exactly about it, overload of it.

ADAM Salman Rushdie… is exactly glossy and unpleasant in the way I associate with the nineties. And this is not the Salman Rushdie who was in noble exile, but was married to Padma Lakshmi. Who he met on the cover of a magazine. I don’t know, it didn’t feel like this at the time. Because it felt like college.

BROOM We must have seen some good movies in college, right?

ADAM What about Star Wars: Episode One?

BROOM What year was Rushmore? ’98, right?

ADAM But Rushmore isn’t not this!

BROOM I think it’s a turning point. Rushmore is what’s to come. At the time it felt very fresh. It was like, “wow, its reference points are French films of the sixties! Imagine that!”

ADAM Well, that’s what I mean about hipsters. Williamsburg was just a dream in 1997.

BROOM And by the time Royal Tenenbaums came out in 2000, what had seemed so fresh and amazing about Rushmore already seemed like, “huh, he’s really digging in his heels here, isn’t he.” So that was really a dividing line.

BETH Spike Jonze was making some pretty good videos for Björk in the nineties.

ADAM There was probably some really sincere rap in the nineties.

BETH The Beastie Boys were very good in the nineties.

BROOM Can we think of something lasting from between ’93 and ’98?

BETH That Red, White, Blue series.

BROOM I only watched Blue, with Adam, and we made fun of it.

BETH Yeah. Red‘s the only really good one.

ADAM Rent, did you say?

BETH No, but…

ADAM Call it what you will, but Rent was an event, and a very sincere event.

BROOM I think if you returned to it though, you’d drown in the nineties-ness.

ADAM I did return to it, three years ago, when the movie came out. And yeah, of course it’s dated, but at least it’s not repulsive. I’m not ashamed that I loved that as a kid.

BROOM Are you saying that this is repulsive and you’re ashamed that you liked it?

ADAM Rent was not cynical.

BROOM So for you is Aladdin before the era we’re talking about, here?

ADAM In Aladdin you could already see the worm turning, and we saw it. Which I didn’t remember seeing then.

BROOM When I saw Jerry Maguire in 1996, I was deeply moved. And it seems funny to me now that I was so moved by it. Obviously had something to with being in high school, but it might also have had to do with the emotional pitch of the times.

ADAM American Pastoral was in this period. It’s real sincere.

BETH Heavenly Creatures, which I was very impressed with.

ADAM But no-one could say that these were the prevailing cultural flavors of the era.

BETH Well, Seinfeld is, right?

BROOM What other moviegoing experiences stand out to you from high school?

BETH Living in Oblivion. I saw it three times in the theater.

BROOM That made a big impression on me, too.

ADAM Um, Con Air? Was ID4 in this period? Pearl Harbor?

BROOM No, that was 2001.

ADAM I guess the big rebuttal to all this is The Internet.

BROOM I don’t remember what, culturally, was important to me, in those days.

BETH I just had my own thing going on.

ADAM McSweeneys.

BROOM That wasn’t on the scene when we were in high school. ’99, probably, was when we started reading that. That was this new level of ironic remove. It was stuff like this movie that made that exciting – this is “ironic and distanced,” but it’s not, really.

ADAM That’s kid’s irony.

BROOM It’s so easy to stand outside this and comment.

BETH The Real World. It became a reference point in most conversations.

ADAM I didn’t really stand in mainstream popular culture in high school.

BROOM What years was Friends?

ADAM ’93 to 2000? [ed: ’94 to ’04] Friends was the most popular show of the early nineties, and then by the late nineties, Home Improvement and Seinfeld would swap between one and two.

BETH I didn’t realize that Home Improvement was that popular.

ADAM There was actually only one year that Seinfeld was more popular.

BETH It’s a terrible show.

BROOM It’s the Leno to Seinfeld‘s Letterman. It’s the McCain to Seinfeld‘s Obama, if you hear what I’m saying.

BETH I do.

ADAM Are you going to put all this in the transcript?

BROOM I don’t know.

ADAM Some of it is interesting. You could maybe abbreviate it a little bit.

BROOM I’ll cut it down.

[ed.: I did not.]