The More You Pander, the Blander

Slapstick decadence is the dominant style at the Disney studios this summer, reaching all the way from Touchstone Pictures' action hit Con Air to the 35th Walt Disney animated feature, Hercules. It's a moviemaking mode that weds anything-for-a-laugh to anything-for-a-jolt, leaving imagination and authenticity in the lurch. Instead of creating a world that an audience can escape into, these movies presuppose a pseudohip TV frame of reference. And the action they stick into the frame makes a deliberate mishmash of a viewer's mental circuitry: Any response to what happens on-screen begins to seem appropriate.

When Steve Buscemi enters Con Air in a Hannibal Lecter getup, moviegoers react with the same laughter and applause as when Billy Crystal made his Lecter entrance for the Oscar show. A similar chaotic pandering permeates Hercules, in which the moviemakers underline every reference with a thick and not-so-Magic Marker. It's not enough that Paul Shaffer be cast as Hermes, the winged messenger (it's actually a funny casting idea) -- there also has to be a shot of him slamming the piano keys the way he does for David Letterman. The jokiness of the overblown, incoherent Con Air is so berserk and incessant that Touchstone might as well have tagged it Con Airplane! It's a flailing attempt to whip some life into the barren genre of the techno-testosterone thriller. To some horrifying degree it works, even if you're never sure whether to laugh or groan at Nicolas Cage, a he-man so courtly he's a male Southern belle. But Hercules fries itself to a crisp, then mucks around in the ashes.

Despite logistics, labor, and expense that are "all on the screen," Hercules emerges as a tuckered-out, off-the-top-of-the-head extravaganza. What makes this desperate farce-spectacle so sad is that it's an outgrowth of the earned success of Aladdin, also from directing team John Musker and Ron Clements, one of the three or four mainstays of the Disney animation line. This team kicked off the company's mainstream resurgence with The Little Mermaid in 1989, which paved the way for a peak achievement by another Disney team in Beauty and the Beast (1991). Musker and Clements broke through artistically with Aladdin in 1992. They realized that Robin Williams's spieling genie, spouting show-biz gags from many ages, could serve as both the id and the teen spirit of their Arabian Nights adventure -- and they smartly built their film around him.

Following the financial disappointments of Disney's numbing Pocahontas (1995) and the ambitious, botched Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules has been positioned not just as a crowd pleaser but also a crowd regainer, meant to restore the box-office momentum Musker and Clements first set in motion. Unlike Aladdin, Hercules is all patter, ranging from snappy to sappy. There's nothing to ground it except a tepid reworking of the life of a brawny demigod who learns that what makes a hero isn't "the size of his strength but the strength of his heart" -- at least, thus spake Zeus. (Or did he say the size of his heart? When Disney gods start hurling platitudes, better duck and cover.) Elements of every recent Disney hit, particularly the record-breaking Lion King, pour into this movie's mix. Mount Olympus functions like the regal cliff in The Lion King. Hercules is Simba-esque: a boy who feels like an outcast and a misfit until he takes up his proper legacy. Once again a Disney hero gets guidance from the vision of his father and from comical sidekicks, primarily a pedagogical satyr named Philoctetes, or "Phil" (Danny De Vito). Once again a Disney hero gets thwarted by the epitome of evil, in this case Hades himself (James Woods).

In the traditional myth, Hercules was half-human from the start, a love child Zeus sires with an earthly woman. Zeus's wife Hera, always hostile to the products of Zeus's innumerable extramarital liaisons, took a special dislike to Hercules, whose Olympian genes gave him super strength, and she tormented him with bouts of fury. He became known for exploding and doing the unthinkable, most spectacularly when he went on a blind homicidal rampage against his wife and their sons. Hercules' twelve labors (from cleaning the Augean stables to dognapping three-headed Cerberus from Hades) were designed as penance for this atrocity. He embodied male rage and the frustration and regret that keep fueling it.

How simple is Disney's First Book of Mythology? Well, in this Hercules he starts out as a full-fledged god, the son of Zeus and Hera. His nemesis here is Hades, not Hera. The lord of the underworld feels that Hercules is the only one who can block his path to cosmic domination. Hades' evil gremlins, Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer), dose him with their own "Grecian formula" and make him mortal. (He stays superpowerful because he doesn't drink to the last drop.)

It's understandable that the Disney filmmakers would take the sexual rivalry out of Hercules' origins. (Hunchback showed how confusing the subject of erotic enmity could get when treated in a G-cartoon format.) What's disappointing is their rendering of Hercules' character. He's merely a mildly confused good guy, unsure of why he feels lost on Earth and then uncertain of how to get back to where he once belonged: Olympus.

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