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Disney Hopes 'Hercules' Reaches Olympian Heights

A lot is riding on "Hercules," the new feature-length cartoon from Walt Disney Productions.

True, this powerful studio still has a solid lock on the sizable market for family-friendly entertainment in the warm-weather season. And its animation division still has the best name-recognition in the business. Parents fondly recall masterpieces like "Dumbo" and "Pinocchio," while kids treasure more recent memories of "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid."

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Still, not all the fantasy-merchants in Disneydom have been wearing smiles lately. Their last two pictures, "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," made piles of money - but smaller piles than unqualified hits like "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" pulled in.

Were these movies weakened by inappropriate stories, or were the characters unappealing, or was the cartooning too tame for eyes accustomed to action pictures with high-tech special effects? Or has the old Disney magic simply waned with the passing years?

Different observers have different theories, but all agree a top-grossing smash would renew the studio's luster while assuring fans that the Disney name can still be depended upon. Hence the high stakes for "Hercules," Disney's 35th animated feature.

The tale begins when Hercules is born to Zeus and Hera, who welcome their baby with a special gift: little Pegasus, a winged horse destined to grow large and strong enough for a brawny Greek god to be proud of. Little do the proud parents know, however, that Hades - the evil god of the underworld - is plotting to take over their domain.

The three Fates tell Hades he'll succeed if Hercules doesn't take up arms against him. So the villain kidnaps our hero and - after failing to destroy him - leaves him stranded in the mortal world, ignorant of his Olympian origins and uncertain why he doesn't fit in with ordinary folks. He eventually learns the truth and triumphs over Hades, of course, but not before fighting some dangerous battles and falling in love with a woman almost as imperiled as he is.

Does this add up to an animation milestone, or just a pop-culture rehash of a story that's survived for millennia without Hollywood's help?

Sad to say, the second answer hits closer to the mark. Straining to be classical and contemporary at once, Disney has steeped the timeless characters in its own well-worn formulas - ancient Greeks or not, they look and sound exactly like mass-market cartoon figures - while twisting the complexity of an age-old myth into the three-act structure of a standardized screenplay.

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And the songs don't help. Sung by a quintet called (inevitably) the Muses, they aim for the toe-tapping uplift of high-energy gospel but land near second-class Motown, a genre composer Alan Menken clearly hasn't mastered. While some pop fans may go for them, many will find them one of the movie's major downsides.

Fortunately, there are some upsides as well. The cartooning is fast and clever, especially in the underworld scenes, and some of the voice-performances are fine. James Woods is an excellent Hades, both sinister and hilarious. Danny DeVito is good as our hero's mentor Philoctetes, and it's fun to hear cultivated talents take on smaller roles like Rip Torn's thundery Zeus, Hal Holbrook's lovable Amphitryon, and Amanda Plummer's wizened Fate sister. Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer are especially lively as Hades' bumbling assistants.

Back on the downside, parents should be careful about "Hercules" if they're thinking about taking young children. While the smallest hint of smarminess is usually enough to earn a PG for a picture, the rating authorities will pass surprisingly large amounts of violence into the G category if the movie is based on a myth or some other source with bedtime-story credentials.

With its underworld god, River of Death, multiheaded monster, and so on, "Hercules" has more scary material than any G-rated picture since the non-Disney adaptation of "Pinocchio" last year. Older kids will handle it fine, but the littlest viewers should sit this one out.

* 'Hercules' has a G rating. It contains characters, situations, and action scenes that could be frightening for young children.

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