Jul 2, 1997 at 12:00 am

Pity the Southern Baptists. Not only is Disneyland now off limits, but one can only imagine the mewling and mauling that awaits Mom and Dad when all their kiddies' friends are singing the praises of this nifty little confection. Hypocrisy always has its victims.

Surely Disney will feel no pain. While the rest of its organization continues to flounder in Eisenhower-era drivel, the animation department somehow has kept pace with the Zeitgeist. Hercules is its most accomplished execution of the magic formula revealed in The Little Mermaid. A very simplified and bastardized form of a fairy tale, fable or, in this case, Greek mythology, retooled for the divorce-ridden '90s provides the plot line. This is then gussied up with a fair number of original show tunes just this side of cloying and cheeky dialogue that taps the surface veins of pop culture, keeping the irony light and lively.

Finally, the animators are let loose on the drafting tables. This time around their slave driver was none other than celebrated British political cartoonist, Graham Scarfe. In The Wall, Roger Waters' leaden ode to misanthropy, Scarfe tried his best to please his churlish boss with a lot of bogus surrealism. In Hercules, Scarfe rules the roost and a wild and woolly art direction is the result.

It's fantastic stuff. There are at least 10 styles at work here, effortlessly flowing from one to another. In Zeus' kingdom, where young Hercules coos in his cradle before his fall to Earth, the lines are soft and fluffy, with sky blue and celestial yellow predominating. In the underworld, where Hades plots to release the Titans and conquer Zeus, the lines are sharp, the detail mind-blowing and the mood genuinely spooky. Even the smaller details hum with creative energy. The muses are a quintet of gospel soul divas, wailing their way through commentary illustrated in eye-popping, wacky detail on the faces of pottery and earthenware.

Directors John Mucker and Ron Clements, the dream team behind previous successes, can do no wrong with an all-star cast of voices, including James Woods, Danny DeVito and Rip Torn. Woods is lovely as Hades, a suitably acid-tongued malcontent tired of tending to the dead. DeVito camps it up as Phil, the libidinal satyr with a Borsht Belt attitude who plays coach to Hercules' Rocky in preparation for a showdown with Hades. The only bum notes are, as usual, the romantic leads of Hercules and Meg. They're as bland as Cream of Wheat. Insert earplugs the minute their eyes fill with stars and the curse of Broadway takes over. Otherwise, enjoy. You'll need all the verve you can get this summer.

Send comments to [email protected].