As Hades, the impish devil in the new, animated Hercules, James Woods gives his most sheerly entertaining performance since Salvador. Hades is a superb-looking villain; he’s like Woods redrawn as a Blue Meanie. He sports a hooked dagger of a nose, an outsize version of Woods’ sculpted Jewish-Roman lips, and, best of all, hair made of blue fire that ripples and glows like the flame on a gas stove — that is, until he gets mad, at which point the stove turns on high and an orange inferno erupts out of his head. (Rage lights his fire.) If you were just looking at him, Hades might be a scary villain for children. But Woods’ performance is an inspired piece of deadpan vaudeville. His dry jocularity is hilariously incongruous — he’s like a hostile, wisecracking salesman trapped in the body of the Antichrist. Staging a coup on Mount Olympus, he slurps a green worm out of a martini and dismisses the mighty Zeus, who’s been hurling jagged flashes of lightning downward, with a quick, derisive ”I’m the one giving orders here, bolt boy!” The way Woods plays him, Hades is funny and evil. He’s right in the spirit of this delightful Hercules, a Disney fable savvy enough not to let its sincerity get in the way of its zippy multimedia charm.
Hercules, the superstrong hero born of Zeus and Hera, stolen from Mount Olympus, and raised as a human child, is a Greek precursor to our own messianic myths — he’s Jesus with Nautilus equipment, Superman in a toga. When a hero is this noble and granite-muscled, you’d better believe that the Disney version is going to have its square, conventional elements. Hercules has, of course, been recast as a callowly ingratiating adolescent hunk; he looks like a god and sounds like the Counting Crows fan next door. Early on, he stands on the obligatory Disney cliff and sings a sappy number called ”Go the Distance” (it’s like the worst song Styx never recorded), and he hooks up with an unkempt satyr-troll named Phil, voiced by Danny DeVito at his most grouchy-monotonous.
That said, the fussbudgets who snorted at last summer’s Disneyfication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame — as if they’d all been reading Victor Hugo on the beach! — probably won’t have similar complaints about Hercules, since it makes no pretense of authenticity. The animators are working in the exuberant channel-surfing mode of Aladdin. The movie is narrated by five rhythm & blues chorines who leap off a Greek vase and keep turning up the joyful gospel heat. When Hercules arrives in Thebes and begins to perform super-human feats, his rise to fame becomes a lampoon of merchandising tie-ins (notably Disney’s), with Hercules being sold on everything from soft drinks to athletic sandals. Fame, though, isn’t the same as heroism, and Hercules must test his courage by proving his love to Meg, a refreshingly saucy maiden with big hair and a voice (by Susan Egan) of suave huskiness.
The most enjoyable thing about Hercules is the way it keeps throwing things at you. Hades’ assistants, Pain and Panic, who look like the standard nattering cute sprites, keep showing up in demonic disguises, and there’s a slinky computer-generated Hydra whose multiplying heads burst forth with unsettling speed. Then there’s Woods, whose cynical wise-guy flair becomes, by the end, a droll commentary on the entire movie. Hercules, like Aladdin, zips Disney’s house animation style past sentimentality and into an age of ironic media-wise overload. That’s not a bad place for it to be. A-