HERCULES (1997) – Blu-ray review

“Hercules” has always struck me as an underrated film—maybe because it has a little more attitude than your typical Disney animated feature. Like Avis or Chicago, it tries a little harder to be hip, cool, or whatever the current vernacular is, and much of the sass comes from a lass. The lead female in this ancient adventure is Meg (Susan Egan), and she’s no maiden in distress. Like Katharine Hepburn in any movie, she’s the equal of her man, a film noir femme fatale sort of gal, and that’s kind of refreshing.

It’s energizing too that embedded in this revised story of Greek mythology are extended references to a number of films.  Hercules is found on earth by mortal parents and raised as their own, just as Superman was—and the little guy does super boy stuff, like lifting Dad’s entire wagonload with one hand. Eventually Mom and Dad tell him that they adopted him and show him a medallion with his name on it. He came from Mt. Olympus, and though Hades tried to make the little guy mortal to ensure his own future power, baby Hercules fought off the last drop and so retained some of his super strength.

Like Rocky, he finds a trainer (Danny DeVito) who’s been itching to coach a champion. And every hero needs theme music. Herc gets his from five muses who act like vamps and come to life off of a Grecian urn to narrate through song—a gambit we saw in “Little Shop of Horrors” and “There’s Something about Mary.” Like Meg, they’ve also got a little attitude, and it adds another layer of fun.

There’s something delicious, too, about James Woods’ portrayal of Hades. This guy with freaky sharp teeth and a constant flame on his head might not be as popular a villain as Maleficent or Cruella De Vil, but it’s not because of the voice talent. Woods does his best Robin Williams impersonation and throws off manic comic riffs with the same flair and unpredictability as those bursts of flames.

Relative unknown Tate Donovan plays Hercules as both a likeable naive and an earnest fellow who’s determined to go from “Zero to Hero,” as the song says, and return to his family on Mount Olympus.  He and Egan manage to give the principal characters a spunky romantic-comedy style relationship.

Every villain needs a henchman or two, and with Hades it’s a couple of characters named Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer). Conceptually they’re not the strongest “thugs” Disney has given us—certainly not if you compare them to the moray eels from “The Little Mermaid” or even Cruella’s British bunglers. But like Woods, Goldthwait gets in a few good comic riffs.

Put it all together and directors Ron Clements and John Musker (“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”) have really done a fine job energizing the Hercules myth and translating something old to something new and entertaining. It’s not top tier Disney, because the songs and the plot and the writing are just a step off, but it’s still solid entertainment.

What’s hurt the film, I think, is the look of it. Although the deities have auras by design, on DVD it looked like a blurry mess. Same with the numerous ghost figures deliberately drawn to look like semi-transparent creatures that look half human and half inhuman. The color palette also seemed a little too Saturday Morning cartoon to me, with too much backlighting washing out the hues.

On Blu-ray, though, “Hercules” looks pretty spectacular, with the colors corrected so that they’re richer looking now, and sharp edges that still gives ground with those auras and ghosts. Pause the playback at any point and you’ll see a much-improved picture that ought to attract a new generation of fans.

“Hercules” is rated G and has a runtime of 93 minutes.

There’s always someone in the theater who shouts “Down in Front” and at least one self-annointed “videophile” who complains about overprocessing every time a release like this gets an extreme makeover. Let ‘em. I love the look of this film now. Gone are the yellow and gold tints that added to the overlit feeling you got when you watched it, and gone is the vaseline lens effect that you got from those auras and ghost outlines. Everything falls into place with this release, and the film is better for it. Colors are richer and more fully saturated, edges are better defined, black levels are stronger, and those problematic auras and ghosts finally look great. If there were any problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, I didn’t notice. Nice job, Disney.

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Additional audio options are in French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1. Like the video, the sound is crisper than the previous DVD release, and while I wouldn’t call it an immersive experience, it’s certainly more dynamic. There’s a little more bass than we got on the DVD, and lot more in the way of tonal quality and precision.

Not a whole lot of bonus features, though. We get a making-of feature (“The Making of Hercules”), a music video (Ricky Martin’s “No Importata La Distancia”), and a sing-along option.

Bottom line:
“Hercules” may be second-tier Disney, but it’s TOP second tier, not far behind the studio’s best animated work, and this Blu-ray release with its improved picture quality really helps you to appreciate that.