Two Disney “second golden age” animated features make their debut this week on two Blu-ray releases this week, both about classic heroes and both showcasing vibrant design and meticulous artistry, down to the minutest detail.
Hercules offers the irreverence, romance and adventure of Disney Aladdin in a quirky style suggesting Warner Brothers and UPA cartoons. It features a stellar cast of talent behind the scenes as well as on the soundtrack. The goal was to achieve something different and visually, Hercules is certainly dazzling, even more so when seen on Blu-ray. No other Disney feature has been as steeped in the singular vision of its designer since Sleeping Beauty (Eyvind Earle for Beauty, Gerald Scarfe for Hercules).
The film is more dependent on gags and one-liners than even Aladdin was, with scores of humorous characters both major and minor. Even the leading lady is on the sardonic side, unusual for a Disney heroine. Meg is the descendant of a Barbara Stanwyck film noir character, fast with a clever line (“It’s been a real…slice”) and not eager to get close to anyone lest they wreck her life further—and her path of bad choices led her to the worst of all—Hades.
Spectacularly animated by Nik Ranieri, with all the best lines in the script spewed like fireworks by James Woods, the movie could easily have been named Hades. In today’s film marketplace of villains as misunderstood people of power driven to destroy because of their uncorked emotions (see Maleficent, Wicked and Oz the Great and Powerful), Hades is a character of 21st century pop culture rather than a product of the ‘90s. And as is the challenge in many a Disney film, the lead hero isn’t always the character who connects with the audience. Hades so overshadows the flawed-but-nevertheless-handsome-and-buff-so-cry-me-a-river Hercules, this may be the strongest instance of a Disney villain upstaging the hero.
The Lion King Elton John/Don Black score enjoyed as much success as the film. In Hercules, Alan Menken went for a pop, gospel and doo-wop sound in addition (which worked so well in the stage and screen musical, Little Shop of Horrors, which he wrote with the late Howard Ashman). This time with lyricist David Zippel, Menken delivered some truly great tunes, my favorite being “I Won’t Say I’m in Love.”
But to quote Meg in that song, “Been there, done that.” Had Hercules preceded Lion King and Aladdin it might have been hailed as a breakthrough. But it was if Disney had been serving lobster thermador to moviegoers, but after a while the public—and the critics—felt like it was the same dish with new sauces and garnishes.
But this isn’t 1997 and the context between films is no longer an issue. Hercules a fine film that deserves more attention than it originally received. The new Blu-ray shows it off to fine advantage. A making-of documentary and music video are on both new discs.
In the case of Tarzan, you may want to hang on to your two-disc collectors edition DVD from 2000 because some of the features did not carry over to the Blu-ray. The audio commentary—a very informative and funny one—is still there, but only on the Blu-ray, not the new DVD.
What makes the Blu-ray worth having is to see how the high-def brings out infinite depth accomplished by the film’s highly-touted “deep focus,” a process in which computer art could go beyond the scope of the multiplane camera. Glen Keane emerges as the leading star of Tarzan with animation that is mind-boggling in its agility and range. Good as the voice cast is (and they’re very good indeed), the animation and new technology take the film totally out of the flat plane, even though it is not the CG we know today.
This begs the question: why didn’t this beautiful marriage between 3-D and 2-D extend into future films? Tarzan comes so close to having the powerful dimension and latitude of 3-D with the unmistakable hand-made electricity of 2-D. While earlier films also used CG to create monsters and mechanics that were less feasible with cel drawings, the combination usually seemed obvious. In Tarzan, the seams are nearly airtight.
Musically it was decided to avoid having characters sing on camera, but rather use Phil Collins’ off-screen performances of his own songs. The only exceptions are Glenn Close’s opening bars of “You’ll Be in My Heart” and Rosie O’Donnell’s scat singing in “Trashing the Camp.” This approach had stood Pixar in good stead with Randy Newman’s music, but it was still rather unusual for Disney. It works well, as it would have seemed odd for Tarzan and Jane to do a West Side Story-type duet.
Tarzan was no Lion King, but it did well enough to avoid being considered a box-office disappointment by those who set the money bar so high after The Lion King that some excellent films were dismissed unfairly. There’s a new generation that will see it now, looking better than ever, and perhaps love it as much as its sister jungle-based features, The Lion King and The Jungle Book.