Is "Hercules" performing mightily? Or has Disney's musclebound hero unexpectedly become a 98-pound weakling? . . . at the box-office, that is.

      And does this mean that moviegoing audiences have lost interest in animation?Compared to "The Lion King," "Hercules" would appear to be faltering. But compared to "The Lion King," "Air Force One" would appear to be faltering.

      Let's face it, "The Lion King" is a very high watermark to use as a standard. It's not realistic to expect Disney's animated features to reach that level every year. Or for any movie to reach any year.

      The 1994 film went into the record books as the highest grossing cartoon ever, with an amazing $300 million in domestic earnings - and another $300 million for its worldwide theatrical release. (Plus subsequent video grosses . . . .)

      "The Lion King" is probably better known around the world today than "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio" or any of the other Disney animated classics. Is there anyone on the planet who doesn't get the joke when Brendan Fraser holds up his young son on the edge of a jungle cliff at the end of "George of the Jungle"?

      "Hercules," however, has earned a mere $87 million so far, and it has slowed considerably since it's June 27 release. Variety estimates that its earnings will stop short of the "blockbuster" mark, $100 million. (Of course, there are a lot of summer movies that would be more than satisfied with $87 million.)

      Tie that to the fact that last year's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" pulled in a total of just $100 million, and that "Pocahontas" grossed $140 million in 1995, and it's apparent that a decline is in progress.

      And that is quite puzzling to the Hollywood powers-that-be.

      What makes this especially disconcerting is that prior to the release of "Pocahontas," Disney's animated features were on a steady rise. "The Little Mermaid" (1989) earned $85 million, then "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) shot up to $146 million, as the first blockbuster cartoon. "Aladdin" (1992) took it to a new level when it pulled in $217 million. And then, two years later, "The Lion King" set a new, albeit impossible standard.

      Any way you look at it, fewer and fewer families have taken part in the summer ritual of seeing Disney's latest animated features in the past three years.

      As a result, show-biz trade papers are asking what they consider the obvious question - why is the moviegoing audience losing interest in animation?

      But as is always the case with Hollywood trends, it has less to do with the audience losing interest in a particular genre than it has to do with the quality of these particular films.

      "Pocahontas," "Hunchback" and now "Hercules," are all very well-made movies, with the same high quality we have come to expect from Disney's feature animators. The films are gorgeously drawn, the dialogue is witty and smart, and there are good-to-passable songs in each one.

      But they aren't really "family" pictures.

      Cartoons in general just don't translate to adult or teenage box-office business. And, unfortunately, that trio of recent exceptions - "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" - seems to have given Disney some unrealistic expectations:

      - "Beauty and the Beast," with its lush romantic elements, became the first animated "date movie." Couples - teens and adults - attended the film without children, and in remarkable numbers.

      - "Aladdin" attracted the same audience, but for a different reason. Simply put, audiences without children were attracted to Robin Williams' hysterical verbal performance as the genie, coupled with the animators' wizardry at matching him in animated form.

      - And "The Lion King" . . . well it was just magic. For some reason, the film managed the perfect blend of storytelling, characterizations, dramatic drive and first-clas writing - in both the script and the songs - which made it something audiences wanted to see again and again.

      But they were also kids pictures.

      These were movies that truly crossed over to youngsters, adolescents and adults, doing as much business in the 9:30 p.m. shows as the noon shows.

      Thinking that a more "adult" approach would hold onto that crossover audience, Disney made a calculated error. Not only did adults and teens not care about seeing "Pocahontas," "Hunchback" and "Hercules" without little kids in tow, the so-called "adult" material seemed wildly inappropriate for the medium.

      It's an old story: By trying to appeal to every audience, Disney inadvertently alienated much of its core audience.

      Not that Disney stock will shrink anytime soon. And not that they can't get back on track.

      But in their arrogance, Hollywood movers and shakers tend to miss the obvious. It can't be the product, they reason. It must be the audience.

      - QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Harrison Ford, whose current "Air Force One" is a hit:

      "I'd love to play Indiana Jones again. It'll take awhile for a script to develop, and then George (Lucas) and Steven (Spielberg) and I have to get together on a time. But we certainly all have an ambition to do it.

      "We've strung this out over so many years that signs of Indiana's age are apparent. I'd like to see us sneak up into the '50s, perhaps. That's got some potential."