Hercules was supposed to serve as a lesson in how to muscle your way to box-office riches. Instead, the Disney animated feature is being held up as an example of the flagging family-film market.

The movie--promoted in typical powerhouse Disney fashion with a blinkin' parade through the streets of Manhattan--may not reach the vaunted $100 million box-office mark. It may, in fact, turn out to be the studio's least successful feature-length 'toon of the 1990s.

The movie is but the latest this summer to discover that it's more lucrative to, say, blow up aliens with really big guns than make quieter, kid-friendly entertainment. Buddy, Wild America and A Simple Wish are three family films disowned by audiences. Those movies--combined--have yet to match (or even come close to) what Men in Black did during only its first weekend.

Hercules was supposed to be the Great G-Rated Hope. In its first three weeks of release, Hercules earned $66.5 million. Nothing to lose your toga over. But it's not the blockbuster some wanted--or expected.

"I think this was a disappointment for us and for Disney" a major theater chain executive told Daily Variety.

And for stockholders. Disney stock slid two points when Herc missed the mark.

Disney has seen declining fortunes in the animation business since the Big One--1994's The Lion King, which roared its way to a more than $300 million gross.

Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) both failed to measure up to that standard--earning about $141 million and $100 million, respectively.

Publicly, Disney says it's pleased with Hercules. Not every movie can be The Lion King, it reminds.

The weakening pull of family and animated films may just be a matter of math: There's not as many little kids as there were a couple years ago. The baby boomers are just about done creating another boomlet. Their kids are now older, more discerning moviegoers. (That is, they wanna see stuff blow up.)

If the bottom is falling out, it couldn't come at a worse time. Almost every Hollywood studio has a 'toon on the way: 20th Century Fox's Anastasia; Warner Bros.' The Quest for Camelot; DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt; Disney's Mulan.

Grimly predicts one movie analyst: "It's going to be a bloodbath."

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