When it comes to dealing in anachronisms you can pretty much write your own rule book, and Disney movies have been indulging themselves in that direction for a long time now, at least as far back as The Jungle Book, which imagined Baloo as a beatnik.
Hercules is the company's 35th animated feature, though it may be the first to eschew gags and wring all of its comic energy from the friction between past and present. After slaying the multi-headed Hydra, Hercules becomes a celebrity - in the late 20th-century sense, that is. Groupies offer him slabs of stone into which he chisels his autograph. His name is used to sell Air-Herc sandals and he is immortalised in the form of an action figure - the sort of plug-within-a-gag at which the company has become frighteningly proficient.
This arbitrary approach can raise some spoilsport questions. You can accept an incarnation of ancient Greece where everyone speaks in American accents. But if credit cards and designer footwear make an appearance, why doesn't Zeus fit the nursery with a security system to prevent his son being kidnapped by Hades? Disney's adaptations of fairy tales never traded in anachronisms because their respective worlds were timeless. Every viewer is already fluent in the genre's conventions - you don't need to show Snow White cleaning up with a Dust-Buster.
But Greek mythology is a genre that young viewers may not have encountered, and Hercules addresses this possibility in its opening scene. The booming voice of Charlton Heston speaks of a time of great heroes, only to be interrupted by a Greek chorus - actually a five-woman gospel group - who rebuke the narrator for making the story sound dull, before bursting into a Supremes-style dance number. Chastising Charlton - why, that's the closest thing to a dictionary definition of irreverence that you could find.
The distincion between gods and mortals is also swiftly established, with the cloud-dwellers distinguished by a Ready Brek glow. Nevertheless, if your last glimpse of Zeus was when Laurence Olivier played the role in Clash of the Titans you may be surprised to see him depicted here as an absent-minded fussbudget who coos over baby Hercules and is scalded by his wife Hera for leaving lightning bolts lying around the place. Pegasus has also been downgraded to resemble My Little Pony, but what can Disney do when the very language of mythology has already been appropriated or debased by popular culture. Youngsters who hear a character telling Hercules "Next stop, Olympus!" may pause to wonder what our hero is doing making a detour to a high-street sports store.
Given that two of the screenwriters, Bob Shaw and Donald McEnery, have collaborated on episodes of Seinfeld, it's disappointing that the film is more cheeky than funny. (Yes, the old Grecian urn joke does get a look in). But at least they succeed in making the story's themes relevant to a modern audience, particularly in the scenes where the mortal Hercules ponders his divine lineage, though in this case pertinence comes at the cost of gravitas. "I would go anywhere to find where I belong," he sings, and you can just picture him blubbing to Ricki Lake, accompanied by the caption "Hercules: Thinks his Parents Are Gods".
The film's animation is a mixture of different styles, which is interesting in the sense that the directors favour experimentation and discord over visual coherence. If recent Disney films can be separated into the classical (The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and the comic-strip (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), then Hercules is somewhere in between. The main characters are notable for the simplicity of their design. Hades (sarcastically voiced by James Woods) has a bouffant of blue flames; Hercules has hands like baseball gloves and calf muscles that a lifetime in the gym couldn't give you. The Hydra is the only blatant example of computer animation, and its incongruity goes some way toward making it appear more fearsome.
The British artist and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe was originally hired to assist with character design, but eventually earned a promotion to production designer. His last cinematic outing was 15 years ago, and though Hercules doesn't isolate his work the way Pink Floyd's The Wall did, there are a few distinctive moments that don't feel like they would have evolved without him. Would Uncle Walt really have sanctioned the scene where Hades gets punched in the mouth and his face folds in on itself to create a talking sphincter straight out of Naked Lunch?
'Hercules' is on release from today, the rest of the week's films are reviewed inside, starting on page 8