Tech Reviews -- Disney Makes It Look Good, But Don't Expect Too More

If the executives at Disney have proved anything, it's that they can take a good formula and weave it into a series of blockbuster hits. They've done it with theme parks, animated motion pictures and, now, with computer games.

Granted, people don't usually think of Disney as a software company, but maybe they should. According to PC Data, six of the top 10 best-selling children's software titles of 1996 were titles from Disney Interactive. In fact, with more than 500,000 units sold, Disney's "Toy Story Animated Storybook" was the bestselling title of the year.

One of the mechanisms driving Disney Interactive's success is obvious - most Disney software is based on Disney movies. Shortly after "The Lion King" hit the theaters, Disney released "The Lion King Animated Storybook" and "The Lion King Activity Center." It also teamed up with Virgin Interactive Entertainment to create a "Lion King" video game.

Similarly, Disney followed the releases of "Toy Story," "Pocahontas," "101 Dalmatians" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with computer games as well.

This summer Disney Interactive timed the release of the "Hercules Animated Storybook" so that it would come out on the same day as the movie. A PC and Sony PlayStation Hercules adventure game is also set to come out later this year.

The Storybook Formula

In 1993, a software company called Living Books popularized the animated storybook format with such hits as "Just Grandma and Me" and "Arthur's Teacher Trouble."

It's a simple formula. Living Books programs told stories on interactive pages; Disney Animated Storybooks have interactive screens. Each screen begins with a brief animation followed by a narrator describing the action.

After the narration, the screen becomes an interactive mural with hot buttons that can be found and activated with a mouse.

The "Hercules Animated Storybook," for instance, begins with a slide show and musical number from the movie showing how Zeus captured the Titans and saved the world. From there it goes to a screen showing Zeus and Hera presenting their newborn child to the gods of Olympus.

There's a brief narration, after which you can click on Narcissus, Apollo, Athena and other deities to see their gifts. When you're through with the page, there's a brief animation showing the villainous Hades offering Hercules a lollipop.

Now students of literature and historical purists may already be spitting blood at this particular telling of the Hercules myths, but remember, no one in their right mind went to "The Lion King" to learn about lions, and Pocahontas missed a few of the finer points of American history. Get used to it.

"Hercules Animated Storybook" has 16 interactive pages that follow this same story-interaction-animation format. It is on these pages that Disney's software designers demonstrate their market savvy.

The format for these pages is nearly 5 years old and the interactive gags are nothing special, but the artwork and animations are some of the best of its kind, and the voices (in the case of "Hercules," this means such actors as James Woods, Danny DeVito and Bobcat Goldthwait) and music are usually right out of the movies.

It doesn't matter if their parents appreciate the technological or creative achievements of this software; young children who like Disney movies like Disney Animated Storybooks because they look and sound like the movies.

How's the content? Shallow, but who cares? Most 7-year-olds will find every hot button in the Hercules Animated Storybook within an hour of opening the box, but that won't stop them from going through the "Storybook" several more times.

There are also activities within Disney's Animated Storybooks. The best of the four in "Hercules" is a checkers game that allows players to compete against each other or take on Hades. Don't worry, the artificial intelligence on this game is enough to make you think, but it won't drive you insane (which is more than can be said about the pre-recorded comments Bobcat Goldthwait makes as you play).

All Disney "Animated Storybooks" follow this same formula, though some do not have all of the voices that were used in the movie. Whoopi Goldberg's voice is missing from "The Lion King Animated Storybook," and neither Tom Hanks nor Tim Allen lent their voices to the "Toy Story Animated Storybook."

The unique thing about "Hercules Storybook" is that it has all of the songs from the movie set to slides. You just click on the golden-harp icon at any time and select a song.

While the content of these products is fairly shallow, Disney sets high standards for the graphics and animation. Games and activity centers

The non-storybook side of Disney Interactive creates game-oriented software.

While some Disney products have turned up on Nintendo and Sega game consoles, most Disney Interactive games are made for PCs. Next fall, for instance, Disney is releasing both PC and Sony PlayStation versions of its new "Hercules" adventure game.

Disney Interactive has two PC game collections created by 7th Level, the innovative company that designed two Monty Python games on CD-ROM.

Titled "Topsy Turvy Games" and "Timon & Pumbaa's Jungle Games," these CD-ROMs are based mostly on old arcade games. "Timon & Pumbaa" has a Frogger-like game in which you help Timon, the meerkat from "The Lion King," hop across a river and gather bugs. It also has a "Space Invaders" game in which Pumbaa, the wart hog, burps on bugs as they fall.

Frankly, Disney's emphasis on graphics and movie properties over content is more troubling in the games than in the storybooks.