The much-anticipated debut offering of Fox’s new animation unit, “Anastasia” reps an ambitious, serious but not particularly stimulating musical feature that unconvincingly attempts to graft warm and cuddly family-film motifs onto turbulent aspects of modern history and mythology. Grandly produced, graced by strong name talent and being tirelessly marketed in an effort to crack the lock Disney has long enjoyed on the family animated field, this ninth effort from the Don Bluth-Gary Goldman team seems poised to appeal most to girls between the approximate ages of 7 and 12, many of whom will love its mystery and romanticism. Overall, however, it lacks the special creative spark needed to lift it to an uncommon imaginative level. Commercial allure on either side of that limited distaff age group is questionable, meaning that the heavy promotion will probably generate potent numbers at the outset, followed by a fairly rapid slide and eventual landing in a B.O. middle range that will not be disgraceful for Fox nor threatening to Disney.
It has not gone unnoticed in the trade that Disney has seen fit to launch the first theatrical reissue of its 1989 smash “The Little Mermaid” the week before “Anastasia” goes wide nationally, a good indication of the cutthroat nature of the competition in the kidpic field. The most successful non-Disney family-oriented animated features to date are “The Land Before Time” and “An American Tail,” both of which grossed approximately $ 48 million domestically; there is no question that Fox would like to surpass that number by a considerable margin to establish a beachhead in the animated arena.
But as even Disney has discovered with its most recent outings, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules,” picking the right subject for musicalized cartoon treatment is a tricky proposition, as “Anastasia” amply demonstrates from the outset. Eight-minute pre-credits prologue effectively establishes Anastasia as the beloved daughter of Czar Nicholas in 1916, but stumbles as it essentially attributes Russia’s social unrest entirely to the sinister sorcerer Rasputin and jarringly introduces stock animal characters into a pointedly unfanciful story.
Little Anastasia and her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie, manage to escape the curse that Rasputin lowers upon the rest of the Romanovs thanks to the enterprising help of a kitchen boy. But while Marie makes it back to her home in Paris, Anastasia becomes separated from her and is next seen, as a beautiful young woman named Anya, emerging from a “People’s Orphanage” a decade later; a particularly dubious musical number, “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” has the peasants dancing and singing about how “since the revolution our lives have been so gray.”
Just at that moment, an unusually entrepreneurial young man named Dimitri and his older pal Vladimir are auditioning candidates for an alleged theatrical piece while actually looking for a young woman they can convincingly groom to pass off as the real Anastasia, in the hopes of collecting a huge reward from the Dowager Empress, still resident in Paris. For her part, Anya, who has no clear recollections of her early years, just wants to get to Paris herself.
Needing a supreme villain, the filmmakers resurrect the long-since-dead Rasputin, now resident in some distant purgatory, who has his evil powers restored to him by his chatty pet bat. Vowing to fulfill his curse against the Romanovs by finally destroying Anastasia, he unleashes his demons upon the train carrying her and her two mentors to Paris, making for an action-packed railway set piece.
Surviving this, the trio gradually make their way, as winter turns to spring, to the City of Light, just as Anya and Dimitri’s relationship transforms from testy antagonism into romance. The major challenge awaiting them is to convince the Dowager Empress to even see Anya, as the aged woman has tired of interviewing young women who invariably turn out to be greedy impostors.
Dimitri’s failed attempt to win over the Dowager Empress in her box at the ballet reps a dramatic highlight, and those viewers who go with the story will no doubt be moved by the eventual meeting between the two women.
A thunderous nocturnal battle between Rasputin and the protagonists, however, comes off as so much hocus-pocus, an empty attempt at a spectacular finish, and one readily agrees with the bat’s comment to his tirelessly evil colleague, “Please, sir, forget the girl and get a life.”
The film’s physical specifications are certainly sumptuous enough. Produced at Fox’s new animation studio in Phoenix, to which dozens of Bluth associates were transferred from his old base in Ireland, the picture is dazzlingly colorful and reps a rare animated feature produced in widescreen, the first in CinemaScope since Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” in 1959.
Song score is by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the hot team responsible for the pre-Broadway smash “Ragtime,” and clearly no expense was spared in trying to get the picture right. (Actual budget is pegged at least in the mid-$ 50 million range, while the Phoenix facility cost about $ 100 million.)
Nonetheless, the film’s impact is moderate at best. The famous story has been shaped in a formulaic manner, and the generic elements, particularly Rasputin, his bat and a friendly but nonspeaking little dog, have been shoehorned into the tale with notable awkwardness. The music and lyrics are OK, no more, with nothing jumping off the soundtrack at a first listen that seems destined to become a standard.
Animation style is variable; general design of the colorful and mostly opulent settings is attractive, and key moments are staged with sufficient drama. But characters’ body movements are sometimes jerky, and facial expressions, especially in the musical numbers, don’t measure up to the best Disney standards. Digitally generated images of some objects, such as the train, are so realistic and three-dimensional as to stick out like sore thumbs.
A stellar cast delivers mostly good vocal readings, particularly Angela Lansbury as the Dowager Empress, but there are problems in the characterizations as well, starting with that of Anastasia. In context, Meg Ryan’s accent comes across as extremely modern American, and the little snits and petulant displays favored by the young lady do little to endear one to her.
In essence, the Anastasia myth (entirely discredited during the past decade by historical findings and DNA analysis) has been nudged as close as possible to Cinderella/Snow White/Sleeping Beauty territory of a girl deprived of her inherited privilege reclaiming her destiny as a princess. But all the ingredients thrown into the pot don’t congeal entirely congenially, and the artistic touch applied doesn’t allow the whole to become more than the sum of its various, but invariably familiar, elements.