After several "serious" animated features, albeit with comic relief, the Disney studio has decided to go with a full-bore adventure-comedy, and the result is exhilarating.
"Hercules," which mixes up its Greek mythology and tosses in plenty of anarchic, modern-day references, is a hysterical take on the half-human/half-god son of Zeus, who eventually must go up against evil Hades to decide the fate of the universe.
In this version of the strongman story, Herc is born on Mount Olympus and father Zeus throws a real bash his personal gift to the child being the flying horse Pegasus, who will remain with him throughout his life.
Introduced by the authoritative voice of Charlton Heston, the film quickly sets its less-than-reverent tone with a quintet of muses who provide musical transitions, a la Motown.
The plot kicks into gear when Hades consults with the Fates, who tell him that in 18 years, when the planets are aligned, the time will be right for his "hostile takeover." But they also warn that Hercules could foil his plan.
So Hades has two of his dim-bulb minions Pain and Panic kidnap baby Hercules and give him a potion to make him mortal. They are interrupted, however, leaving the child partially mortal and partially godlike, retaining his incredible strength.
The film follows Hercules through his adolescence and into adulthood, as he trains with a satyr named Phil. And he eventually falls in love, of course, though the object of his affection, the seemingly tough-minded Meg, turns out to be working for Hades.
In the midst of all this are a number of wild-eyed battles, the most flamboyant involving a computer-generated Hydra, which sprouts new heads each time Hercules chops one off eventually becoming a beast with 30 heads.
Meanwhile, Herc becomes the Michael Jordan of ancient Greece, attracting autograph hounds, endorsing "Air Herc" sandles, selling assorted products and excelling at his sport
In addition to the obvious Greek legends that are mixed up here, Disney's "Hercules" throws in nods to everything from "Superman" to "Rocky" (and Meg owes something to Lola in "Damn Yankees"), with special emphasis on such modern star trappings as endorsements and merchandising.
The film is rated G, but the Hydra scene and a couple of others may be a bit intense for very young children. Although the violence and gore is fairly brief and by it's nature quite cartoony. (There are also a few mildly vulgar gags.)
And the character of Hades, while evil to the core, is played like a stereotypical fast-talking used-car salesman. James Woods provides the voice, and he's so glib and funny that he easily runs away with the picture. (Encountering a familiar face in the depths of hell, he says, "It's a small underworld after all.")
But the other actors hold their own, and quips and one-liners aplenty are provided by Danny DeVito as Phil, the satyr; Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer as Pain and Panic, respectively; Paul Shaffer as Hermes; Rip Torn as Zeus; and stage actress Susan Egan as Meg.
Best verbal gag: "Somebody call I-X-I-I." (Which is 911, of course.)
There are also plenty of fast and furious sight gags in this briskly paced yarn, with good songs by Alan Menken (who else?) and lyricist David Zippel and more comic inventiveness than any 30 live-action comedies so far this year.
"Hercules" should be a Herculean hit.
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