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Hit and Myth

Hercules fritters away its strengths

In the shape-changing genie in Aladdin, Musker and Clements hit on a character who could support an anarchic aesthetic. And in Robin Williams they had the ideal performer for an anachronistic spritz through mass entertainment. But at the center of Hercules is a lug who erodes into invisibility under a manic stream of pop consciousness. It's not voice actor Tate Donovan's fault: The script gives him nothing to play except befuddled manliness. In a new-style Disney cartoon such as Hercules, the cartoonists and gagmen fritter away their energy, providing enough "in" humor to keep baby sitters and parents awake for 90 minutes. As a subject, Hercules would have been better suited to the nuclear emotions of the old Disney. What could be more primal for growing boys and girls than the story of a man who doesn't know his own strength -- whose valor is inseparable from temporary insanity? Hercules touches on this tangentially and briefly, when the hero is a gawky adolescent nicknamed "Jercules." But after that, it plunges into an unholy mix of sass and sanctimony.

There is some fizzy filigree in Hercules. The British theatrical artist and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who did the scarifying design and animation for Pink Floyd -- The Wall, served as the film's production designer. He exerts an astringent influence on the conception of the monsters, the Fates and Hades, who resembles his voice-actor, James Woods, but with jagged teeth and hellfire hair. The casting is on the mark -- Rip Torn and Samantha Eggar as Zeus and Hera, Hal Holbrook and Barbara Barrie as Hercules's earthly parents -- though the pace doesn't allow it to register fully. Susan Egan stands out as Hercules's bad-girl true love, Meg. The character cuts an original figure -- both angular and curvy -- and Egan tags even throwaway lines with such crack musical-comedy inflections that her banter grows seductive. Egan effortlessly glides into Meg's big number, "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)," with the confidence of the lead singer in a Brill Building girl group; the song itself is wistfully catchy, a relief after the go-for-broke gospel numbers. Some other sounds and images stay pleasurably in the mind -- such as the Fates gleefully cutting mortal coils, or Hades pointing towering dumb-cluck Titans in the right direction.

But there's more graffiti here than filigree: The frenetic activity and joke-mongering swamp the striking or affable moments. Hercules is split so many ways that you could say it has multiple personalities. Or none.

Hercules.
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. With the voices of Tate Donovan, James Woods and Susan Egan.

Rated G.
91 minutes.

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