In this film-by-film wallow in the depths of Disney's direct-to-video sequels and spinoffs of their more respectable theatrical animated features, I had initially been compelled to skip right over 1999's Hercules: Zero to Hero. Happily - for an extremely specific sense of the word "happy" - reader Todd Draper had my back, and has been able to supply me with a copy of the film, thus saving my from an excruciating gap in my record. Emphasis on "excruciating".

Actually, Zero to Hero isn't all thing considered, an especially vile example of the form - it come out in the year between Belle's Magical World and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Continues, and it's at least better than either of them, while filling the same ecological niche: an anthology of episodes from a TV show derived from a Disney feature. Though Zero to Hero, unlike those two (and unlike any of the handful of TV anthologies to come in the future), was assembled of four episodes of the Hercules cartoon that had already aired in 1998, making it perhaps the single grubbiest cash-in of them all- no, fuck that, nothing could possibly be more contemptuous and low than Belle's Magical World.

Utterly shameless or not, Zero to Hero is, as these things go, a largely undamaging extension of the plot of the underappreciated 1997 Hercules feature, capturing something of a degraded version of the same tone and energy, unlike those DTV projects that have absolutely no connection with their nominal forefather (I'm talking about you, Hunchback II). I speak as someone with absolutely no knowledge of the TV show from which this "feature" was culled, mind you, and perhaps it's possible that what's tolerable at an hour and change would be horrible stretched out over 65 half-hour episodes. Thankfully, that's not what we're here to judge.

Things start off a bit after the end of the feature, as god-turned-demigod-turned-human Hercules (Tate Donovan) - remember, we're in Disney mythology here, not the actual mythology of actual ancient Greece - and his new wife Megara (Susan Egan) are moving into their new home. One box that accidentally passes in front of Meg's eyes is full of Hercules's old high school memorabilia - remember, we're in Disney &c - and despite her husband's insistence that there's nothing in there worth bothering about, she still chases it to the remote island home of Hecules's satyr trainer Philoctetes (Robert Costanzo, replacing Danny DeVito), where she finally gets the dirt on Herc's days as a clumsy, bumbling adolescent...

And so, cue the midquel, for the show was, I am given to understand, all about Teen Herc's Misadventures in High School, which sort of doesn't fit in with the movie much at all - the implication, as I picked it up, was that he was already a bumbling adolescent who didn't fit in with the local teens, when he went to be montaged into adulthood by Phil - but Zero to Hero puts in a noble attempt to lacquer over this objection with one of its many irritating faux gospel songs:
He was working with Phil on his physical best
When his dad intervened with this simple request:
(Child, what did he say?)
You've got to send (send my boy)
Send my boy (send my boy)
You've got to send my boy to school
The zippy, inventive Alan Menken/David Zippel songs from the original are in no special danger of being replaced in anyone's hearts, I think it's safe to say. Also, this doesn't actually address the question of why, exactly, Hercules needed to be in school, but it would be grumpy to point that out.

Anyway, Meg's unwelcome intrusion into her husband's past ends up kicking off three distinct anecdotes, each of them lasting about 22 minutes; they're not really terribly far afield of what was going on in the original movie, issues of how well they fit into continuity notwithstanding. Though I must point out that, in the movie, Hades, god of the underworld, seemed unaware that Hercules still existed through that whole time, and yet here he is, popping up without any fanfare, like he's a recurring villain, or something. The good news is that Hades is still being voiced by James Woods who still puts in the giddy, slimy energy which he used last time, and the character is by far the best-looking in the whole of Zero to Hero, subject to more or less the same contortions of animated creativity that the real feature animation depart lavished on him.

And this matters because Zero to Hero looks, in general, like a movie made on the cheap by whatever studios put in the lowest bid for that week's project. But we'll get there shortly.

The first story, "Hercules and the First Day of School" is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: Hercules goes for the first time to Prometheus Academy in Athens, where he meets the usual collection of sub-Hughes types: insufferable popular kid Adonis (Diedrich Bader), loopy nerd Icarus (French Stewart), and mopey outsider Cassandra (Sandra Bernhard) are the only ones we really need to concern ourselves with as far as the video is concerned. In an effort to prove that he's cool, Hercules tries to beat a monster, the two-headed cyclops Orthus (Brad Garrett and Wayne Knight), ends up largely destroying the school in the process, and doesn't get any credit for saving the day anyway.

The second story, "Hercules and the Grim Avenger", has Hercules teaming up with a mysterious, self-narrating crimefighter (Eric Stoltz) parodying Batman more or less explicitly, to beat a rampaging Minotaur (Michael Dorn). In the process, Hercules largely manages to destroy an entire city block, and doesn't get any credit for stopping the monster.

The third story, "Hercules and the Visit from Zeus", finds Hercules venting to his dad, thunder god Zeus (Corey Burton, doing a better Rip Torn than Costanzo's DeVito), and in turn causing the god to prove that he'd be able to survive a little thing like high school. So he turns himself mortal for 24 hours, and becomes a complete disaster in the process, while Hades attempts to use this opportunity to kill his hated rival once and for all. Astonishingly, Hercules does no significantly demolish anything nor fail, through inaction, to prevent something from being demolished, and he is not deprived of credit, on account of not really being responsible for stopping Hades.

Oddly, the framework stitching all of this together isn't original to the video, either: it's the clip show "Hercules and the Yearbook" repurposed to flash back to things it wasn't originally flashing back to. At which point, if I were any kind of fan of the series, I'd be ready to burn the thing to ashes, because that's just dirty in its total lack of dignity.

By no stretch of the imagination do these episodes suggest that the Hercules TV show would be very much worth watching on its own merits, though as a one-time dabble, it's bearable enough: the idea of a high school out of every clichΓ©d TV series about teenagers ever finding its way into ancient Greece is dubious at best, but then, Hercules, the movie, was already such a giddy slurry of anachronistic jokes and pop culture satire (though, blessedly, not pop culture reference, and this is largely absent from Zero to Hero as well) that nothing about this concept is genuinely discontinuous with the original in a way that e.g. sending Winnie-the-Pooh into a nightmarish hellscape is, regardless of whether it's actually effective on its own merits or not. And in the world of these Disney sequels, failing to violate the spiritual core of the original in all respects has to count as at least some kind of triumph (I'm talking about you again, Hunchback II).

Mind you, I'm not entirely sure that Zero to Hero is effective on its own merits: it's pretty broad and simplistic in its plotting and characterisation, just like the children's television show that it was; and there's a difference between riffing on Greek myths and then just plain not giving a shit that they ever existed to begin with. Then there's the matter of the animation, which really does look like hell. The number of distinct studios credited is rather unnerving, and it's pretty clear that unlike the shows produced mostly in the comforting bosom of Walt Disney Television Animation, Hercules was something of a slut, going with anybody, anytime. Some of the problems, admittedly, start at a more basic level: the film Hercules is among the most heavily stylised things that Walt Disney Feature Animation ever tackled, and the TV producers had a hard time scaling down, so not only do the extant characters, Hades excepted, look wrong and inconsistent, the new characters are fairly desperate attempts to fit in with the same aesthetic, and for the most part, they go wrong.

Though Icarus is far and away the worst offender, in part because he's a main character that's completely unpleasant and even upsetting to look at.

Design is one thing, animation is another, and the animation here is pretty awful, though not inexplicably so: the days of DuckTales, Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers, and TaleSpin, when Disney was actively concerned with raising the quality of television animation, had by this time been replaced by a cash machine mentality in which all that mattered was getting product out as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible. Not that DuckTales and so on were masterpieces of the form, but they have a basely competence largely absent from Hercules, which is pretty much indistinguishable from any other TV animation in 1998.

Still, I have to specially call it out for Megara, who goes off-model more than any other person in any other DTV Disney film we've looked at yet. Seriously, I have no idea what the hell it is with Disney's television productions and female characters, but it's such a pronounced, consistent weak point. And Meg has, to me, such a terrifically appealing design in the movie, the best part of its pleasurably random design mentality, that the things they've done to her here are just that much more frustrating. I apologise in advance for the number of screenshots it took to put that point across, but I defy you to tell me that it's not almost captivating in its badness: this exists, and we are meant to believe that all five of these drawings are of the same woman.

It's like fan-art done by five different people, only the first of whom has rewatched the movie recently, and the fourth of whom almost certainly has also drawn a significant number of Megara nudes.

Now, let's not be dumb: Zero to Hero was already going to be at such a low level of accomplishment even relative to other DTV projects that complaining that - lo and behold! - it looks like shit is really missing the point a lot. I concede that. But just because something is expected to be bad and meets expectations, versus something that manages to be far worse than your ugliest fantasies (hey, Hunchback II...), that doesn't meant it ceases to be bad. The best I can say is that, unlike a lot of the Disney sequels, I can come up with no reason that Zero to Hero should not exist, just reasons that its existence does none of us any particular good. I am so sad to think that this fact puts it comfortably above the median.