Friday November 21, 1997
animation, the best news about "Anastasia" would be bad news anywhere else. Every aspect of what's on the screen, from attractive lovers to campy villains and too cute animal sidekicks, is as familiar as familiar can be, with one exception: The logo on the film reads Fox Animation Studios, not Walt Disney.
The Disney parallels are not surprising, given that the film's producing-directing team, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, both have extensive Disney experience on such films as "Robin Hood" and "The Rescuers." But Bluth and Goldman have been on their own for nearly 20 years, and this is the first feature they've done that has the potential to attract the same audience as the Disney epics. With DreamWorks' "The Prince of Egypt" due in November 1998, Disney's unprecedented monopoly on high-end animation may be coming to a close.
The first animated film to be shot in CinemaScope since 1959's "Sleeping Beauty" (which Bluth worked on), "Anastasia's" strongest aspect is its epic visual sense, its computer-aided ability to reproduce the vistas of Russia before the revolution and Paris in the 1920s.
One class of viewer "Anastasia" won't be attracting are red diaper babies. Though suggested by the saga of the real-life youngest daughter of Russian Czar Nicholas II, who some claim survived the massacre of her family (though recent DNA evidence says otherwise), "Anastasia's" plot makes a hash of history. It shows czarist Russia as a swell place to live and insists that the revolution took place only because the mad monk Rasputin literally sold his soul to the devil in a fit of pique to make it happen, which is a little like saying a toothache of King George's caused the American Revolution. Sales of Marx's "Das Kapital" are sure to plummet when that news gets out.
Actually, Anastasia's story sounds like unlikely material for an animated feature all the way around. But Bluth and Goldman, aided by a quartet of writers, have managed to put a teen-responsive spin on it. What we get is a lonely girl who wishes she were a princess, an unwanted child eager to find out who she is and desperate for the love only a home and family provide. Surely the Anastasia Barbie is not far behind.
Before all that can happen, "Anastasia" flashes back to 1916 and a grand ball for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. There young Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst) shares a tearful te^te-a-te^te with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury). About to go back to France, the Dowager gives the girl an elaborate music box and a key to wind it that says "Together in Paris."
Those happy plans are interrupted by gloomy party-crasher Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his albino bat sidekick Bartok (Hank Azaria). Looking like Fagin on a bad hair day, Rasputin fumes at no longer being in the royal family's favor and with the devil's assistance soon brings the Romanovs down. If not for plucky kitchen boy Dimitri, Anastasia would not have survived.
Cut to 10 years later. A winsome Anya (Meg Ryan), "a skinny little nobody with no past and no future," is leaving the orphanage where she grew up. She doesn't know a thing about her parents, but a certain key around her neck clues the audience in. After picking up a painfully cute dog named Pookah, Anya heads for St. Petersburg to see what life has to offer. Ah, youth.
Already in St. Pete is a grown-up Dimitri (John Cusack). He and pal Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) are genial rogues with a plan for instant riches. They'll find a likely girl and teach her to play the part of Anastasia, thus collecting a fat reward from the old Dowager Empress in Paris.
Naturally Anya gets the job, and just as naturally takes such a dislike to Dimitri ("Were you a vulture in another life?" is a typical endearment) that romance is inevitable. Also not surprising is the reappearance of a dead but still mobile Rasputin, determined to see his curse on the Romanovs extend to the family's youngest member.
All this is pro forma for feature-length cartoons, and some of the actual animation is on the rickety side. The same goes for the words and music to the eight songs written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team responsible for "Ragtime" on stage. With lyrics like "Heart don't fail me now, courage don't desert me," these tunes are not likely to rock any boats.
"Anastasia's" dialogue, with its insistently modern tone and reliance on phrases like "Can you believe it?" and "What goes around comes around," is also off-putting at times. On the plus side, though, the voicing by a capable group of actors is excellent, with high marks going to Azaria's Bartok the bat, who advises Rasputin "stress is a killer, sir" in an indefinable yet delicious accent.
Though originality is not one of its accomplishments, "Anastasia" is generally pleasant, serviceable and eager to please. And any film that echoes the landscape of "Doctor Zhivago" is hard to dislike for too long.
Anastasia, 1997. G. Released by 20th Century Fox. Directors Don Bluth & Gary Goldman. Producers Bluth & Goldman. Executive producer Maureen Donley. Animation adaptation Eric Tuchman. Screenplay Susan Gauthier & Bruce Graham and Bob Tzudiker & Noni White. Songs Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty. Score David Newman. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Meg Ryan as Anastasia. John Cusack as Dimitri. Kelsey Grammer as Vladimir. Christopher Lloyd as Rasputin. Hank Azaria as Bartok. Bernadette Peters as Sophie. Kirsten Dunst as Young Anastasia. Angela Lansbury as Dowager Empress Marie.