Release Date: November 21st, 1997 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman Actors: Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst, Angela Lansbury
n 1916, Nicholas Romanov, the czar of imperial Russia, celebrates a tricentennial event with his family. Just as the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury’s very recognizable voice) presents an anniversary gift to her 8-year-old granddaughter Anastasia, the evil sorcerer Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) curses the house of the Romanovs with an untimely demise in a fortnight. A revolution is sparked and Anastasia is separated from Marie while boarding a train. The little girl is also knocked unconscious.
Ten years later (with Russia under communist rule), Anastasia (Meg Ryan) lives in an orphanage and adopts the name Anya, completely unaware of her royal past. Dimitri (John Cusack), a servant who aided in her escape from the war a decade ago, and his conman partner Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) now hope to find a lookalike candidate to pose as the real Anastasia. The reuniting of Marie and her granddaughter could prove to be quite lucrative. They come upon Anya as she’s looking for papers to travel to Paris – her resemblance to the Romanovs inspires them to employ her as their “fake” princess. Rasputin’s soul has resurfaced from Hell, however, and with the help of his bat minion Bartok (Hank Azaria, of course), he’s intent on destroying the young woman for good.
The film starts right up with Anastasia and Marie singing – and it’s not long before a large-scale song and dance sequence in the center of St. Petersburg links scenes. Following the Disney tradition of adaptations, this Russian urban legend receives a musical twist. Anastasia gets a single memorable piece (“Once Upon a December”), sung by Liz Callaway, and a tune even goes to the villain, gallivanting with an army of prancing grubs and demon bugs. The dance sequences are beautifully constructed, background paintings are exquisite, and the attention to detail is superb (the opening setting of the Catherine Palace is grand enough to rival “Beauty and the Beast’s” ballroom scene).
Rasputin is appropriately scary; his design is not too far removed from “Aladdin’s” Jafar (with, perhaps unintentionally, a bit of Judge Doom mixed in), with removable limbs, an eyeball that pops out of his head, easily manipulated dead flesh, and a fully satanic monster form. With death, violence, and some decent action sequences (plus the character of Sophie, featuring enormously unbalanced bosoms and voiced by Bernadette Peters), “Anastasia” is a slightly more mature venture, which can capably hold the attention of adults. But it’s still unable to reach the level of emotional resonance that Disney’s string of ‘90s pictures so masterfully obtained. Part of the folly is allowing audiences to be aware from the very beginning that the impersonating Anastasia is, in fact, the real one. The suspense and wonder is lost – there’s no mystery or surprises leading up to the inevitable homecoming. At least, the reappearance of the villain presents a more unpredictable conflict to be adventurously overcome.
“Anastasia” performed well at the box office, becoming Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s highest grossing film. This first collaboration with Fox Animation Studios proved to be the company’s only real success, as the financial disappointment of the follow-up theatrical animated feature, “Titan A.E.” (2000), forced the division to close down. It wasn’t before a straight-to-video spinoff was made, however, putting the supporting character of Bartok the albino bat into his own movie (entitled “Bartok the Magnificent”) with Azaria reprising the voice work.
– Mike Massie