Mouse toons ‘Hercules’ in to TV

NEW YORK — “Hercules” is muscling its way onto the small screen.

Walt Disney Television Animation has begun pre-production on an ambitious 65-episode order for a TV version of the theatrical feature, the first such Disney movie-to-TV series since 1994’s “The Lion King” spawned “Timon & Pumbaa.”

Disney is producing 13 episodes for ABC’s Saturday-morning schedule, where “Hercules” will debut in fall 1998, and an additional 52 episodes for its weekday-morning syndication block, a joint venture with Kellogg Co.

The series, a prequel to the theatrical film recasting the lead characters as teenagers, will feature most of the vocal talent from the film, including James Woods as Hades and Tate Donovan in the title role, but Danny DeVito (who played Phil) has bowed out.

New characters also will be added for the TV version, including Sandra Bernhard as Cassandra and Eric Idle of “Monty Python” fame as Parentheses. Other celebs will record guest appearances, including Mandy Patinkin, Jennifer Aniston, David Hyde Pierce, Jason Alexander and Kathie Lee Gifford.

Tad Stones, a longtime Disney producer, has been tapped to exec produce the new series, with Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle as writers.

Despite disappointing domestic grosses in comparison to earlier Disney hits — the film has generated $83 million so far and is projected to top out at $95 million — Disney execs view “Hercules’ ” humor as especially ripe material for TV. The series was greenlit about a month before the June 27 wide theatrical bow to largely positive reviews, following a limited single-screen run in New York.

“Everybody just felt the property was terrific,” said Dean Valentine, president of Walt Disney Television Animation. “The story is episodic; the guy’s got a lot of adventures. And it’s comedic, more like ‘Aladdin.’ It lends itself to doing real well as an animated show.”

Valentine views the signing of Woods as a major coup, “because his comedy is so integral to the whole thing.”

Despite the secure berths on Disney-owned ABC and the Disney/Kellogg Alliance syndication block, however, the “Hercules” TV series is by no means a sure thing.

Three TV versions of earlier Disney animated films had modest lifespans and ratings, although all ran on CBS, which lately has had a tough time luring kids on Saturday mornings.

“The Little Mermaid” aired for three years, from 1992 to 1995, while “Aladdin” ran from 1994 to 1996. “Timon & Pumbaa” is now completing its second season, but is being yanked in September as CBS abandons cartoons after low ratings. The latter two will remain in syndication.

Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” franchise, reinvigorated with the 1996 live-action remake, is bowing as an animated series in September simultaneously on ABC and in syndication, in a pattern to be repeated with “Hercules.”

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