Reviewer: Charity Bishop
The oldest known form of storytelling can be found in legends. The stories of Achilles, Hercules, and other Greek gods and heroes have been passed down through the centuries as a monument not only to the fantasies of old but revelations of truth throughout the ages. Hercules is one of the better-known tales, but this is not the light-hearted approach of Disney. This is a torrid, dark tale of triumph against inner and outer evils.
It is the night of the festival to honor the goddess Hero, when a blood sacrifice must be made in order to appease her for yet another season. High Priestess Alcmene (Elizabeth Perkins) offends the gods when she attempts to kill a half-man, half-woman oracle and removes from him his sight. As punishment, she is raped by an unknown god in human form believed to be Zeus. Her husband Amphitryon (Timothy Dalton) does not believe this, and swears to murder the child if one is born of the unholy union. The oracle predicts that two sons will be born, but only one of them will belong to Amphitryon. When the children are born, Alcmene bears them into the swamps where the Harpies dwell and asks that the son of Zeus be killed. The creatures refuse to spill his blood, and all of her attempts to be rid of her son Hercules are thwarted.
A strong and temperamental child, Hercules draws the unwanted attention of the crown when in a fit of madness, he strikes down his tutor (Sean Astin) and appears to have killed him. Forced to flee into the mountains and escape the wrath of punishment, there he dwells until it becomes known that a two-headed monster is ravaging the city of Thebes. Now a grown man, Hercules (Paul Telfer) starts off on a destiny that will lead him to dark places, from the gates of Hades to the favor of a beautiful wood nymph (Leelee Sobieski). Through it all, his mother looks upon him with repulsion and prays Hero will bring an end to his life, as an affront against Zeus, his father and guardian. I must admit that my knowledge of Hercules is a trifle rusty since it has been many years since I studied this particular legend, but the film only covers half of his grand adventures.
There are six trials Hercules must complete in order to atone for his sins, which involve the unintentional murder of his three sons. Most of his adversaries will be known to anyone with an interest in mythology, and it was fascinating to see such creatures as centaurs, harpies, sphinx, and two-headed dragons come to life. There is even a mention of the three-headed dog that guards the gates of the underworld. The special effects range from being extremely poor (the mythical stag of the wood is very badly animated) to quite good (the harpies are fantastic!), and the acting follows a similar pattern. There are moments when it is good enough to forget how bad some of the dialogue is. The most impressive thing about the production is the costuming. I loved the light, airy fabrics used for the wood nymphs and the beautiful lace of the high priestesses.
There were moments when I truly enjoyed it, because I am fascinated with ancient Greece and Rome and their cultures and mythologies, but the excessively dark tone of the production, the blood sacrifices, and the homosexuality, however brief, troubled me. More disconcerting is the belief of the actors involved in the project (through interviews on the disk) is that they seem to feel this is an appropriate fantasy for children. Not any children I happen to know!
Alcmene is set upon in the woods and forced to the ground, where we hear her cries. Her husband entices her into bed that same night. There is much debate on rape and whether or not Zeus is responsible. Megara spends the night with Hercules in the wood and accuses him of raping her when she becomes pregnant. Deianeira takes advantage of Hercules after he has been wounded (we see her bare back, and she kisses him) and bears him a son. Later, when he has learned the truth, the two are shown kissing in bed. (Only at the end of the film are they married.) Deianeira is shown bathing in a pool in the woods; most of her bare back and half of her breasts are shown from the back in several rather lengthy shots. Megara enters her husband's chamber and finds Hercules' twin brother lying there with him.
Violence is standard for a film of this genre: many men are shot with arrows. A multi-headed monster attempts to drown the king. Every time one of its heads is cut off, two more grow in its place, but that doesn't prevent us from seeing the CGI creature being sliced and diced. A man is graphically impaled. Three children are taught the ways of murder in order to kill their father; awakening and believing them to be demons, he kills them all. Hercules uses a sphinx's own claws to slit the creature's throat.
Men are used as pagan sacrifices to the goddess Hero. Blood is poured over the severed heads of harpies to awaken them and glean their wisdom. Priestesses murder a chosen man each year to appease their goddess. Hercules cries out to all the gods in a vow to remain loyal to all of them.