Disney's `Hercules' Plays Up The Comic Side Of An Epic Tale -- Missing From The Disney Treatment Of The Hercules Story Will Be Some Darker Details Of His Life, Including His Illegitimate Birth.

Disney made a few controversial changes when it turned out feature cartoons based on the Pocahontas story and Victor Hugo's tragic novel, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

With "Hercules," which goes into national release Friday, the studio may find itself on safer ground. After all, even the ancients were selective about which version of the story they told.

"We felt we could take more liberties," said the film's co-director, John Musker, during a Seattle visit. "There isn't one definitive story. They don't all jibe with one another."

As Edith Hamilton pointed out in her classic study, "Mythology," Ovid even "passes over Hercules' slaying of his wife and children." Little details like that are also missing from the Disney treatment. Hamilton's own version, drawn from accounts written by Theocritus and Apollodorus, differs from the story told in another standard reference work, "Bullfinch's Mythology."

But most accounts of Hercules' life do begin with his illegitimate birth to the human Alcmena and the philandering god, Zeus - and the wrath of Hercules' stepmother, Hera, who tries to kill the boy by sending two snakes into his nursery (later she drives him mad and forces him to kill his family). In the Disney version, Hercules is the legitimate son of Zeus and Hera, and the snakes are ordered by the underworld lord, Hades.

"In a Disney film, issues of philandering and illegitimacy are a little hard to handle," said Musker. "And Disney's done a couple of evil stepmother stories."

Besides, this is a light, jazzy "Hercules," not the Steve Reeves toga-saga treatment, and Musker felt it would be difficult to resolve the story with Hera as the villain. In such Disney hits as "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid," Musker and his co-director, Ron Clements, have established a comic approach to potentially ponderous material.

"There are 1940s screwball comedy aspects to this story," said Musker, who cited Preston Sturges and Frank Capra as influences. "We thought of Hercules as the young Jimmy Stewart in `Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' Meg (his devious girlfriend) is modeled on Barbara Stanwyck, especially the characters she played in `The Lady Eve' and `Meet John Doe.' "

Since Meg works for Hades, they were also thinking of Lola, the temptress who has a contract with the devil in "Damn Yankees." After seeing the Jerry Lewis revival of that musical, they even thought about casting him as Hades, but decided that Lewis' devil was made up of too much "visual shtick."

To play up the story's comic aspects, the team recruited Eric Goldberg, the character animator who did the genie in "Aladdin," to work with Danny DeVito on creating bits of business for Hercules' athletic trainer, Phil. Musker and Clements write their films, and Goldberg had no trouble imagining DeVito in the role.

"I could visualize him very easily," said Goldberg, who accompanied Musker to Seattle. "It's obvious that John and Ron have such talent as writers. You can see the personalities stamped on the script."

They used a rudimentary video camera to record the actors as they were doing the voices. In some cases, Goldberg feels, this helps avoid the cliches of animation that can develop without a human reference point.

"Danny has an unusual mouth shape, and he uses his whole body. You begin to see how unique those qualities are, how the character merges with the voice, how that can take it to another level."

One personality that didn't work out as expected was Hades. Although they briefly considered Lewis and other American actors (they think British accents have become a cartoon-villain cliche), Musker and Clements really wrote the part with Jack Nicholson in mind. When that didn't work out, they hired James Woods, who played it quite differently.

"He was nasal, abrasive, in-your-face, a Hollywood schmoozy guy," said Musker. "He improvised a lot, and some of his improvs ended up in the film. We redesigned the character to fit him."

Musker, Clements and Goldberg had gone through a similar process with Robin Williams on "Aladdin," and they're open to outrageous anachronisms, contemporary impersonations and studio in-jokes.

They claim there is no truth to the rumor that Hades is based on Michael Ovitz, although another ex-Disney boss, Jeffrey Katzenberg, did inspire Hades' chant, "Guys, guys, listen to me."

The movie includes an episode about Disney-like merchandising of Hercules, as well as a reference to "It's a Small, Small World."

It begins with Charlton Heston's droning narration, which is suddenly interrupted by five African-American muses who end up telling the story. Musker admitted this invention owes something to the stage production "The Gospel at Colonnus," which also mixed a Greek narrative with gospel music.

"We never did see the play, but we listened to the recording," he said. "That ecstatic, exuberant quality was what we tried to capture. We also wanted a `Dreamgirls'-type opening to tell the back story."

The songs are by Alan Menken, who won Oscars for his music for "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid," and David Zippel, the Tony-winning lyricist of "City of Angels" who also provided the lyrics for the 1995 Disney-style cartoon, "The Swan Princess."

Clements and Musker are working next on a futuristic Disney version of "Treasure Island," scheduled for release in 2001, called "Treasure Planet."

Before that turns up, we'll also be seeing a Disney cartoon that Musker describes as "Tootsie in China," an animated version of "Tarzan" and John ("Toy Story") Lasseter's latest creation, "A Bug's Life," which is due at Thanksgiving 1998.

Goldberg, who joined Disney in 1990 and co-directed "Pochahontas," is currently working on the "Carnival of the Animals" sequence for "Fantasia 2000," which will be released in late 1999.

He said the finished film will probably include three sequences from the original "Fantasia" ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice," "The Nutcracker," "Dance of the Hours") plus six new sequences, based on music by Shostakovich, Beethoven, Respighi, Elgard and Stravinsky, whose "Firebird Suite" inspired a sequence about the area around Mount St. Helens coming to life after the explosion.