Kool Herc

THE RELEASE OF Hercules, Disney's animated "comedy of epic proportions," comes while the über-studio is at the top of its game--timing too precise to be coincidental. It's currently screening in a special premiere engagement at the lovingly restored New Amsterdam Theatre: a crown jewel in the new, family-friendly Times Square, whose revitalization was in fact spearheaded by said entertainment conglomerate.

So this is not just any movie release, but rather one that warranted the "Hercules Electrical Parade" of June 14, which covered 30 blocks of Manhattan, commandeered some 2,000 cops, and, according to a grumbling friend, screwed up the subways lines for a good amount of time. Such hoopla seems not so much a celebration of a cartoon about "the first superhero," but a flexing of Disney's own herculean muscle in its newly colonized city.

Not that Uncle Walt doesn't give something back. The ongoing Hercules Summer Spectacular at the New Amsterdam includes a live stage show (following a tradition that stems back to The Little Mermaid's late-'80s premiere at the El Capitan in L.A.). Given that the cheap seats start at $23, this entertainment is mainly for true-blue Disney fans and their spoiled kids (who can brag about having seen the movie before anyone else).

As it turns out, the musical is a rather sophisticated exercise in archetypal storytelling: Heroes and Ingenues, Villains, Romance, Comic Relief. Call it an English lit lesson in song-and-dance form (and doubling as a 30-minute Disney ad). During the number about Romance, we watched the pantheon of Disney couples sharing the stage (Pocahontas and John, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Jasmine, Snow White and Cinderella and their respective Princes, etc.) and wondered what fun could be had by engineering some creative partner-swapping. After all, a "Topsy Turvy" number did celebrate the value of going all-out crazy, if only for "one day a year." That tune's confetti-shower climax was the perfect, poignant segue to a fairy-godmother song (from Pocahontas) that urged, "We need to sing with all the voices of the mountain, and paint with all the colors of the wind." Then all the characters were trotted out again for the grand finale, featuring a special cameo by Mickey and Minnie--which for some reason brought to our mind Ron and Nancy Reagan.

After a half-hour the real event came, and not a moment too soon.

"HER-CULES!!!" screamed the young fan next to me, flinging his arms in the air and whacking me in the head. Those who bristled at last year's animated Hunchback of Notre Dame will not find this appropriation of Greek mythology any less offensive. But if you go with the flow, that old Disney magic is pretty irresistible.

It's tempting to see this blockbuster about an unstoppable hero as a sort of Disney self-portrait. After training with his coach/agent Phil (voiced by Danny DeVito), Hercules heads for Thebes ("The Big Olive")--which, according to Phil, is "a town with a million troubles" sorely in need of heroics. Hercules fights all kinds of monsters, single-handedly revitalizes the city, and becomes a megastar heartthrob with merchandising deals for action figures and "Air Hercules" sandals; there's even a "Hercules Store." The audience laughs knowingly throughout, naturally--and Disney laughs all the way to you-know-where.

But even if Disney aligns itself with the Good Guy, its Villains and Sidekicks have always been the show-stealers. Here, it's Hades (James Woods), the Underworld nemesis of Herc's dad, Zeus, who gets the best lines. "Memo to me: Maim you after my meeting," he tells his aides-de-camp, the clumsy gremlins Pain and Panic, after one of their many foiled attempts to topple Herc. And just as Disney seems to be commenting on its own cutesiness with this duo--whose schemes involve shape-shifting into simpering tykes, adorable songbirds, and such--the love interest, Meg, becomes the first Disney heroine who's not all peaches-and-cream innocence. In fact, she's a cynical gal who's been around the block at least once.

The consumption component of the Hercules Summer Spectacular began promptly after the movie, as the audience swarmed through doors placed conveniently between the New Amsterdam and the adjacent Disney Store (outfitted, not surprisingly, with its own "Hercules Store"). Since this was no time to reason with frothing 5-year-olds, all the irony about idol worship was promptly forgotten, along with the heartwarming values for which Disney is supposedly so revered. The lesson in Hercules is that "it's not the size of your strength, but the strength of your heart," as Zeus tells his son. Needless to say, among all the plastic weaponry and "Herc's Girl" backpacks and stuffed dolls, there was nothing so corny as a T-shirt emblazoned with that slogan and a big red heart. We'd idolize the kid who wanted one, though.

Hercules starts Friday at area theaters.

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