Self-awareness and pop-cultural referentiality had been done in many, many times in cartoons prior to the 1990s. But that was the decade in which that tone really became all the rage in American animation, thanks to things like The Simpsons and Animaniacs. Moments of earnestness and sentimentality couldn’t occur without being punctured by meta-humour and parody. Disney successfully embraced that style with the Genie character in Aladdin, and from then on, usually that tone was restricted to just one comic relief character (such as the dragon in Mulan, which as we all know is Eddie Murphy’s Third Best Film).
However, Hercules (which like Aladdin was directed by Musker and Clements) was probably the first Disney movie in which that oh-so-’90s tone pervaded the entire film. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as strong an example of that approach as the later, much more entertaining The Emperor’s New Groove.
Hercules himself is a fairly dull protagonist (his Disneyfied “origin story” has elements of Superman, and although people might be VERY WRONG when they criticise Superman for being boring, their reasons are absolutely valid when applied to this film’s Hercules). Fortunately, at least we get Meg and Hades, who follow that Disney villain tradition of getting most of the best lines and voice acting. Meg’s conflicted loyalties make her one of Disney’s most interesting heroines.
One of the most noteworthy things about the film is the presence of Gerald Scarfe as a contributor to character designs. There are a few designs in the film where his fingerprints are unmistakable – two pointy-nosed women look like they’ve stepped right out of the opening titles of Yes, Minister, and of course the film’s villain Hades is also clearly his work. If Scarfe’s original drawings (glimpsed in the Making Of featurette) had been used in undiluted form they would have scared the hell out of the kids, so understandably they had to be blended with the traditional Disney style! In addition, the Disney animators incorporated elements of classical Greek design into their animation.
However, although these three different styles work pretty well separately, they don’t blend together very well: you’ll have a clearly Scarfe-designed character right alongside one who’s pure traditional Disney (the Pegasus is basically the horse from Sleeping Beauty with wings), and they’ll both be alongside a character like Meg who very clearly illustrates the more stylised, angular approach. The computerised aspects only further complicate and confuse and the film’s look: the cloud-morphing is fine, but the Hydra blends CGI and cel animation in a way that looks rather dated today, and some shadows have that ugly blended gradation that’s a hallmark of computer-colouring (this issue was also prominent in the Jumba character in Lilo and Stitch).
The gospel songs sung by the Muses are fairly decent – if not up there with Aladdin and The Lion King – but the other songs in the film are unremarkable.
You want a Hercules-inspired animated film? Watch The Twelve Tasks of Asterix!