Disney Studios has had a near-monopoly on feature animation for almost sixty years now, and near-monopolies are almost as destructive as full-on monopolies. Twentieth Century Fox is to be applauded for going up against the giant mouse; one only wishes that its first effort were itself more to crow about.
Over the last three years, Fox has built an ambitious new animation studio in Phoenix and put the promising Don Bluth and Gary Goldman in charge. The two were an obvious choice; since they defected from Disney in the late 1970s, they've turned out the studio's strongest competition--An American Tail, The Secret of NIMH and The Land Before Time. The Secret of NIMH, in particular, may have been partly responsible for awakening Disney's slumbering rodent and convincing its then-new administration to revitalize its animation unit.
But Bluth and Goldman have also been known to stumble badly. Their 1990 Rock-a-Doodle was truly wretched. Some of its problems can surely be attributed to financial troubles at Bluth's Irish studio, but it also suffered from poor conception, writing and music.
Anastasia is vastly superior to Rock-a-Doodle; the animation and the voice talent are first-rate. All the technical elements deliver. But it fails on a number of creative levels.
The story is roughly adapted from Fox's 1956 melodrama of the same name, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar. In a brief prelude, we meet the major characters: eight-year-old Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst), youngest of the Romanov children; her grandmother, the Grand Duchess (Angela Lansbury), who is about to leave for Paris; the mad monk, Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), who places a curse on the family; and Dimitri (Glenn Walker Harris Jr.), the resourceful kitchen boy who rescues Anastasia from that curse, which arrives in the form of the Russian Revolution.
Ten years pass: Anastasia (now Meg Ryan), with no memory of her royal past, leaves the orphanage in which she was raised and heads for Paris to search for her identity. In St. Petersburg, she meets Dimitri (now John Cusack), who is a scam artist, auditioning girls to pose as Anastasia in hopes of grabbing a piece of the Romanov fortune. Dimitri and his sidekick Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) hire Anastasia to pretend to be Anastasia. On the way to Paris, they groom her in preparation for her meeting with the Grand Duchess.
Meanwhile, Rasputin is informed by his bat companion, Bartok (Hank Azaria), that Anastasia is still alive; the curse is not yet fulfilled, which is why Rasputin is decomposing in limbo rather than taking his permanent place in hell. The dead monk sends out various minions to dispatch the last Romanov--the Grand Duchess is presumably from the other side of the royal family--before venturing to the surface himself to finish off the job.
I'm not revealing any state secrets by saying that Anastasia and Dimitri fall in love, vanquish Rasputin and head off in an excess of saccharine. "It's a perfect ending," one character says. "No, its a perfect beginning," replies another, as the two defy their class differences.
While Anastasia roughly follows the traditional Disney formula, it falls down on a number of counts. There are far too many musical numbers--which wouldn't be a problem if the songs were more memorable. But it's blander than even Pocahontas, and its sole attempt at humor ("Learn to Do It") just isn't funny.
The storytelling and pacing are slow: For an animated feature over ninety minutes long, very little happens. The basic plot--Anastasia learning to be her true self in order to convince the Grand Duchess--is periodically threatened by Rasputin's goons...and that's it.
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Which brings us to the subject of historical veracity. According to Fox, the Russian Revolution sprang from nowhere as a result of a supernatural curse by Rasputin. The notion that the Romanovs were the heirs and beneficiaries of a brutal, oppressive system of government is nowhere to be seen. Nope--they were just a sweet, loving clan who happened to cross the wrong monk.
It's just a kid's film, you say. Lighten up. But consider, for instance, a cartoon about World War II that reduced the war and all its conflicts to a personal vendetta by Hitler to get back at all the people who teased him about the name Shickelgruber.
No one would sit still for that...and Anastasia is worse. Little kids may have already heard about World War II, and they'll certainly be taught about it (or see it on TV) eventually--which is more than you can say about the Russian Revolution. To give children their first (and possibly only) exposure to one of the central political events of the century, replacing its real issues with a bit of contrived hoodoo, is truly irresponsible.
Written by Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Directed by Don Bluth & Gary Goldman. With the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer and Christopher Lloyd.