The box office performance of Hercules, Disney’s seventh animated musical in eight years, was hardly what you’d call Olympian. Not that it’s a particularly flabby film; it’s as brisk, buoyant, and bombastically energetic as any of the studio’s other recent extravaganzas. So what’s the problem? Maybe the feeling that we’ve seen it somewhere before.
With 1989’s The Little Mermaid, Disney made animation cool again by combining the most successful elements of 50 years of pen-and-ink fairy tales. Six musicals later, there have been minor variations (some movies have love songs, others don’t) and optional elements such as narrators (Hercules has the Muses, who leap off pottery to sing narrative gospel songs). But for the most part, Disney’s been using a formula that can enable anyone — even, say, the makers of Anastasia — to paint a coming-of-age movie by the numbers. Sometimes it works. In Aladdin, the elements blend so seamlessly that the stock characters seem organic. Other times, as in Pocahontas, they seem ordered into the script by executive decree. It had us wondering: Of Disney’s recent batch, which characters fill out their roles the best — we give the Genie and Belle a perfect score of four mouse ears — and who just takes up space?
The Little Mermaid
JOB: Embody nascent all-American sex appeal, mope around, sing at scenic viewpoints, heed call of duty, leave home
ARIEL is everything a heroine should be: headstrong, playful, sexy, angel-voiced. Everything that is, except her own person. [3 mouse ears]
JOB: Incite villain’s lust, have great hair, start as perceived enemy of hero/heroine, be an individual (females only)
Silly ERIC, falling for Ursula because she sounds like the mermaid who saved your butt. You’re just stupid enough to be endearing. [2 1/2 mouse ears]
JOB: Behave like hero/heroine’s naughty younger sibling, eat anything in sight, provide comic relief
Unmemorable FLOUNDER and SCUTTLE are strictly Old Disney: Think Orville in The Rescuers. Who? Exactly. [1 1/2 mouse ears]
JOB: Be reluctantly pressed into service by hero/heroine’s worthiness, come across as ethnic, pour tea (Mrs. Potts only)
SEBASTIAN’s advice is ignored, but the crab’s songs are classics. And don’t forget his performance as dinner in the sidesplitting “Les Poissons.” [3 1/2 mouse ears]
JOB: Crave control of universe, keep nose in air, be either huge or emaciated, collect mortal souls, perish by falling
URSULA proves female villains were once just as nasty — and twice as big — as the boys. [3 mouse ears]
JOB: Get clonked on the head, spar with sidekick, furnish ineffectual support that sinks villain’s plan, escape scot-free
Eels FLOTSAM and JETSAM are the only henchmen to buck convention and do their jobs well. And they’re creepy, not cutesy. [3 1/2 mouse ears]