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Greek viewers hiss at distortion of myths in Disney's `Hercules'

Walt Disney was quick to say that in Greece, at least, it wouldn't be taking any chances with "Hercules."

Firstly the Mouse's latest offering was given a new name: "Beyond the Myth of Heracles," which not only Hellenized the hero's name back from its later Roman equivalent but, more important, put the story behind the story into context.In the Greek voice-over, translators of the English script, headed by Lakis Lazopoulos, were also given a free hand. And on the eve of the Athenian screening explanatory booklets outlining the real myth were distributed by the thousand, declaring "This film is not a lesson in mythology."

After French fury over "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame," Hollywood had clearly taken some pains to show it had learned its lesson. But in the country that gave birth to the gods, Disney still has a very long way to go.

The Greeks are anything but amused at what it has done to their favorite ancient hero. The refrain echoed by cultural pundits, academics, doting parents and government officials is the same: Hollywood has abused and distorted a great Greek myth, pillaging European culture in the name of profit.

"Modern Greece never had much, it never had wealth or colonies. What it had always was history and legends and they have just been hideously ridiculed by Hollywood," snapped the prominent commentator Vangelis Migdalis.

Not since the furor over Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation Of Christ," when protesters burned theaters, has a film ignited such indignation. To a man, it would seem, the epic, feature-length cartoon has touched a raw nerve. Instead of laughing, Mickey's "Hercules" has got Greeks as young as four throwing popcorn at the screen in fits of rage.

"Heracles never did that, he never killed the minotaur," screamed one 6-year-old, who spent much of his time hissing in disgust during one afternoon performance. "My teacher said Theseus did." His teacher is right.

The Greeks never expected Disney not to be inventive. Nor did they expect the Herculean legend not to be reinterpreted. The fact that Hercules is a wide-eyed, ginger-haired boy who does four rather than 12 tasks doesn't seem to bother them at all.

Those who have seen the movie say they even enjoyed watching the proto-Rambo chiseling his autograph into stone as the cult of celebrity gradually descends upon him - irreverence is one thing.

But stretching the myth to the point where Zeus, the womanizing father of the gods, is portrayed as a paterfamilias and Hera, his long-suffering wife as Hercules' adoring mother - when he was the offspring of Zeus and his mortal mistress Alcmene - is more than they could take. As are the feats that also see the boy-hero slaying the medusa in Thebes when every Greek knows it was Perseus, his great-great uncle.

For academics, Disney has done more than provoke insult. It has committed the sin of being anti-educational. They fear a whole generation of children could be brainwashed by the movie.

"Walt Disney has not only totally disregarded the ancient myth but changed its message and that's dangerous," says Vasillis Lambrinodakis, an antiquities expert at the University of Athens.

"They may have wanted to make it more viewer-friendly, but if they only wanted to be inspired by it they really should have changed the characters' names," he huffs. "Hollywood films have power. Children will watch and understand it much more easily than, say, reading a book at school. I'm afraid it will remain with them."

This fear of dumbing down has led many parents to boycott the movie. In the few weeks since it opened, theaters in Athens have registered record losses.

"This film is not for Greece, it is not for Athens," says Yiannis Tzedakis, the director of antiquities at the Culture Ministry. "It is a distorted portrayal of the Herculean myth. And we Greeks, you know, have a thing about myths. We take them very seriously."