They're all animated in Thebes

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Robin Buss sees Hercules and looks forward to a season of Russian films

HERCULES (U) RUSSIA IN THE SHADOWS. National Film Theatre, Part I Nostalgia for the Present (until November 5); Part II: We Will Begin to Live (November 25-December 29)

The latest full-length Disney feature starts in a museum. But never fear; there's no dust on this exhibit. Before long, a chorus of women has danced off one of the black-figure vases and transported us to the land of candyfloss and sugar icing (nominally Mount Olympus).

Here the gods are celebrating the birth of Zeus's son, Hercules, who is already flexing his muscles for the struggle against Hades, lord of the Underworld. Then Hades godnaps him and turns him into a near-mortal, leaving him nothing but his superhuman strength.

Forget the 12 labours and whatever else you may remember from your primary school project on the Greeks. Hercules grows up to be an all-American hero, handsome, but a bit clumsy and none too bright, who has only to save Thebes from the Hydra to get his portrait on soft-drink cartons and action figures. Like Jurassic Park, this is a film that actually includes references to its own merchandising campaign. The plot is about the hero's efforts to be worthy of his place in the Pantheon and his love for the sceptical, man-wary Megara. Wherever Disney goes for source material, it usually seems to end up with the same story of guy and gal (though nowadays the latter is an independent spirit, not some dutiful Snow White, and usually cleverer than her man).

It is presumably a sign of the strength of American popular culture that it can so confidently assert its right to other people's myths and make them its own. The ability to put the Disney stamp on even the least promising raw material is most clearly demonstrated by the use the corporation has made of Gerald Scarfe, who gets the credit for production design. Scarfe did the preliminary sketches for the characters and co-operated with the animators throughout the making of the film. The result achieves a high degree of coherence (especially in view of the fact that it employed some 80 animators and the artist's individual touch has effectively been smoothed out). What one may recognise at times, alas, is a debt to the centaur sequence of Fantasia.

Yet, as so often with Disney, one has to admit that the film works well on its own terms. The comic characters (Hades' two sidekicks and Hercules' trainer) are thoroughly enjoyable - Phil, the trainer, has the voice of Danny De Vito and behaves like a cigar-smoking boxing manager from the Bronx. There are jokes for the children, in-jokes for the adults, slapstick and wit, and a few moments of real imaginative power: the image of dead souls swept around endlessly in the Underworld, for example. All in all, Hercules is what it sets out to be: great family entertainment. "It was good," said the nine-year-old who took me.

It is nearly 10 years since the National Film Theatre last gave a season of Russian films: one reason has been the difficulty of negotiating loans; since the end of the Soviet Union, the old bureaucratic structures have continued to exist (the chief agency for selling films abroad is still called Sovexportfilm), but they are underfunded and inefficient. There has also been a crisis in what was once among the world's major cinema cultures. The average number of cinema visits per head of population during the Soviet period was 15 a year; it is now once every three years. The Russian public has taken to television and the video recorder and turned its back on the cinema.

This summer's Moscow Film Festival launched a campaign against video piracy, which is a serious threat: copies of Andrei Konchalovsky's The Odyssey (made for American television) were being sold on the stalls outside the metro stations even before its much-hyped premi re at the festival. You can get anything in Moscow's free market, usually very cheaply, except a classic of the Soviet silent era. The New Babylon was screened at the Festival with live orchestral accompaniment to a cinema barely one-third full. The old ideology and its structure have gone, but the cynicism that they generated in such plentiful quantities remains.

The NFT season is divided into two halves, with a break for the London Film Festival. The first part contains examples of various genres, from comedies to films about the legacy of the past and art cinema. The name to look out for is that of Aleksandr Sokurov, whose Days of the Eclipse was shown at the NFT on October 2. His latest work, Mother and Son, won the main prize at the Moscow Film Festival; it will be shown at the London Film Festival and released here next spring.

But the season (which includes seminars on the Gorbachev era on October 22, and fantasy in the cinema of glasnost on November 3) is full of interesting work and gives invaluable opportunity for students of film, or of Russian language and culture, to see what has been going on there during the past decade.

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