Anastasia (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Finally, there's a legitimate challenge to Disney. And, while it's unlikely that Twentieth Century Fox's Anastasia will break the Mouse's stranglehold on animated films, it's a good place to start. Anastasia is easily the best non-Disney animated movie in recent memory, and it is good enough to rival such titles as The Lion King and Aladdin. The key is enjoyability and appeal to both adults and children. This degree of magic and energy has been noticeably absent in movies like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. Maybe with another studio to push them, Disney will get back on track.

The first thing to note about this delightful animated adventure is that it should not be confused with an historical account of the Russian revolution. Aside from borrowing a few names, facts, and dates, this is pure, unadulterated fantasy. Someone expecting even a loose reliance upon history is going to be horrified, but then anyone who falls into that category probably doesn't belong at this movie in the first place. Even moreso than Pocahontas, Anastasia uses reality as nothing more than a convenient backdrop.

The story opens in 1916 Russia, just before the revolution, and depicts the fall of Czar Nicholas II as the result of a curse placed upon him by the evil monk Rasputin (voice of Christopher Lloyd). Every member of the Romanov family is killed, except Nicholas' mother, Marie (Angela Lansbury), who escapes to Paris, and the Czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst), who is missing. Rasputin is also slain, but, because his curse was not fulfilled, he ends up languishing in limbo.

Fast-forward ten years. Marie has offered a 10 million ruble reward for anyone who finds her granddaughter. Back in St. Petersburg, a pair of con artists, Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer), are holding auditions for an "Anastasia" to take to Paris. When they discover Anya (Meg Ryan), little do they realize that the 18 year old young woman is actually the real princess. Together, Dimitri and Vladimir teach Anya how to act like royalty, preparing her for an audience with Marie. Meanwhile, Rasputin finds a way out of his nether-domain and plots Anastasia's demise.

While the animation in Anastasia still doesn't quite match up to that of Disney's recent features, it's light years ahead of the likes of The Land Before Time, Balto, and even An American Tail (also by Anastasia's director, former Disney animator Don Bluth). There are times when the characters' lips don't perfectly synch up with the vocals, and other occasions when the background detail is lacking, but, on the whole, Anastasia's visual pallet is quite rich. Many of the most complex sequences are majestic, and effective use is made of computer generated effects and background paintings. Consider, for example, an impressive view of a shining St. Petersburg as Anastasia approaches it from over a hill.

Story-wise, Anastasia is every bit as strong as any new wave Disney film except Beauty and the Beast. There's a little adventure, a little romance, a little mysticism, and a little drama. The lead character is easily the strongest, most independent animated female to grace the screen, surpassing even Belle for spunk. Meg Ryan is perfect for this role. Anastasia's love interest, Dimitri, isn't very interesting, although John Cusack gives him a spark of personality. The villain, Rasputin, looks hideous, but his nastiness is relatively generic. In fact, most of the time, he's just a diversion from the real story, which is about Anastasia's quest to find her family. There are two "cute" animals: a voiceless dog named Pooka and a bat called Bartok (Hank Azaria), who is very talkative.

Musically, Anastasia is better than anything from Disney since death deprived them of their key lyricist, Howard Ashman. All of the big production numbers in Anastasia have their roots in Broadway musicals, with a lot of well-choreographed dancing and singing. The songs themselves (there are six from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) are lively, and several, including "A Rumor in St. Petersburg", "Once Upon a December", and "Paris Holds the Key", stick in the memory. It's interesting to note that, of those who have speaking parts, only Kelsey Grammer, Bernadette Peters, and Angela Lansbury are allowed to do their own singing. Liz Callaway doubles for Meg Ryan, Jonathan Dokuchitz fills in for John Cusack, and Jim Cummings replaces Christopher Lloyd.

The whole process of watching Anastasia is a thoroughly enjoyable one, and it proves that any studio willing to put forth the time, money, and effort can match Disney. In fact, understandably, a lot of kids will mistake Anastasia for the Mouse's latest offering. Twentieth Century Fox should consider this a compliment, not a slight. If every non-Disney animated film in production or on the drawing board is as good as Anastasia, the executives at the Magic Kingdom have good reason to worry.

Anastasia (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 1997-11-12
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1