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Nashville Scene Grecian Formula

Disney misses the point

By Donna Bowman and Jim Ridley

The annual animated feature film from Disney studios has become not so much a movie as the capstone of a huge merchandising effort. There's no use decrying this trend; Disney has been so successful in marketing itself as a brand name that, when a child is expected to have a favorite character from Hercules before he has seen the movie, one must simply admire the company's achievement. Still, even though the celluloid reels of Hercules itself are actually disposable advertising for nightshirts and plush figures, the movie deserves to be evaluated, if only because Disney has a reputation for producing very high-quality advertisements. Usually there's a story, songs, characters--the whole nine yards. So you'll excuse us critics if we pretend that, like any other movie with these elements, this cultural juggernaut can be reviewed.

In their search for public-domain material, the Disney creative team has gone through Grimm and Scheherazade and has now arrived at Greek mythology. The only question is, what took them so long? (The criticism evoked by the unsettlingly romantic, pagan overtones of Fantasia's mythological sections may have something to do with it.) In this version, Hercules is the divine son of Zeus and Hera; he is stolen from Mount Olympus by Hades, who is bent on overthrowing the king of the gods and taking power himself. The Fates have prophesied that only Hercules can foil his plans, so Hades (James Woods) sends two minions to make baby Herc mortal and kill him. They botch the job, and Hercules, still with superhuman strength, develops into a gangly, awkward teenager who always feels out of place. When he discovers that he could return to Olympus as a god if he proves himself a hero, he sets off with his trusty horse Pegasus to pursue heroic deeds--rescuing damsels in distress, slaying monsters, averting natural disasters.

The supporting cast includes a personal trainer named Philoctetes (Danny DeVito) and the beautiful, sassy Megara (Susan Egan). Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer provide slapstick relief as Pain and Panic, the bumbling demons. There's a comic style and a heartfelt emotion for every potential demographic: The Muses, who narrate the action from Greek pottery and bas-reliefs, belt out gospel-inspired numbers that invite toes to tap. Although fights with computer-animated foes like the Hydra didn't appeal to me because their smooth texture clashed with the traditional art, boys will love the action. Girls should enjoy the feisty love interest, while Hades spouts Hollywood in-jokes for the parents.

No movie can be all things to all people, however, and the more Hercules tries to please everyone, the less satisfying it becomes. I don't automatically fault Disney for simplifying its material, but the changes it has made in the Hercules mythology have hobbled the film's plot. Hercules was a tormented outcast, yes, but the reason was that he was the offspring of Zeus and a human woman, doomed to be chased by jealous Hera all his life. He consistently destroyed the things he loved, beginning with his wife Megara and their sons, whom he killed in a fit of madness. And his loves and losses weren't limited to female company; while questing with the Argonauts, he could not be consoled when his beautiful young armor-bearer Hylas went missing, and he roamed the island calling for the boy until Jason had to leave without him. Imagine the uproar from the Southern Baptist convention if that scene had been included.

The Disney message about true heroism being found in the heart packs a punch, even without the tragic elements of the Hercules myth. But I suspect that smarter kids will see through the deal Hades makes with Hercules in the climactic battle, and they'll feel cheated in the epilogue, when Hercules gets to have his cake and eat it too. A mythic story is nothing without conflict, and nearly all the conflict except the usual struggle for self-realization has been written out of this version. The Greek myths are terrific tales, but they are also remnants of a once vibrant religion. Given our uneasiness with religions other than our own, it's not surprising that most Americans feel uncomfortable with those powerful undercurrents. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for all its faults, confronted a dark religious theme. Here, the gods and titans might as well be fairies and elves.

Some great songs and some terrific art (designed by Gerald Scarfe) carry the day in Hercules, and nobody is likely to leave disappointed. But the emotion and excitement that audiences felt for The Little Mermaid, for example, are absent, and not coincidentally, so is the sense of danger in the story. Hercules is great entertainment, and maybe that's all Disney is supposed to produce these days. After all, songs, stories, and characters aren't just cherries on top of the marketing sundae anymore--they're needed for the upcoming Broadway show.--Donna Bowman

Holy Deadlock

The summer started with Addicted to Love, in which two dejected mopes watch their loved ones screw other people. Then came Til There Was You, in which destiny-bound lovers spend their entire lives avoiding each other and having doomed relationships with other people. Now comes the Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend's Wedding, a two-hour display of masochism in which the romantic lead tries to break up her best friend's marriage by sandbagging his intended bride. Romance isn't dead at the movies, but it sure is pale and sick.

Actually, My Best Friend's Wedding isn't all that pale: It's trimmed in the lollipop pastels of Pillow Talk, and every other shot looks like a big dish of Jordan almonds. Roberts plays Julianne, a New York food critic summoned to the phone by her oldest and closest friend, a Chicago sportswriter. Years ago, they'd made a blood oath to marry if they were still single at age 28; with Julianne's birthday due in weeks, the sportswriter, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), calls to say he has marriage in mind--but not to her. Instead, he demands his friend's approval of his bride-to-be: a Chicago heiress who hopes Julianne will be the sister she's never had.

The pleasant surprise is that the heiress, Kimmy (nicely played by Cameron Diaz), is sweet but no sap; she has a competitive streak that she suppresses, and while she desperately wants Julianne to like her, she's also a little afraid. And with good reason: In a neurotic frenzy, Julianne decides she must break up the wedding through a series of subterfuges that are as silly as karaoke warfare and as potentially harmful as fake e-mail messages. Julia Roberts has always been most appealing as a light comedienne, and here, as frantic jealousy turns her long legs and slender arms into an avalanche of right angles, she does mean things so clumsily they don't seem malicious. It's a neat trick that keeps the movie from turning sour.

The movie's allusions to Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedies aren't just campy fun. The best scenes in My Best Friend's Wedding are the ones most like something out of a '50s romance. There's a lovely, poignant moment in which the two friends, Michael and Julianne, share a boat ride through Chicago on their last afternoon together; the director, P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding), pulls out all the stops, from a precisely timed shadow to a close-up of Roberts at her most dazzlingly moist-eyed. By the time they slow-dance, while Michael softly sings "The Way You Look Tonight," late-show devotees will be searching the floor for napkins. Incidental pleasures such as these are the movie's biggest asset.

As in Addicted to Love, the plot continues long after we want the misguided protagonist to stop, and the movie collapses near the end in a miserable stretch that turns Julianne into a repentant drudge. (The screenwriter, Ronald Bass, overestimates the audience's desire to see a pretty woman--the Pretty Woman--suffer in penitence.) Luckily, at the movie's lowest ebb, Rupert Everett resurfaces in a role George Sanders couldn't've navigated more smoothly. As Roberts' confidant, a gay editor pressed into service as a makeshift fianc, Everett breezes through the movie with suave bemusement; he even pulls off the movie's strangest moment--a loony-tune monologue that becomes a production number of "I Say a Little Prayer."

Everett and Roberts are the movie's real love match--something the moviemakers were at least wise enough to realize. It says something about the current state of screen romance that the people who can't have each other in My Best Friend's Wedding are the ones who strike the most sparks. Then again, the same could be said for Doris Day and Rock Hudson.--Jim Ridley

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