Turn On, 'Toon Out

Over the past three years, Twentieth Century Fox has built an ambitious new animation studio in Phoenix, putting the promising Don Bluth and Gary Goldman in charge. The two were obvious choices. Since the animators defected from Disney Studios in 1979 to form Don Bluth Productions, they've turned out the Mouse House's most serious competition -- The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), and The Land Before Time (1988). 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 1992 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.

Bluth and Goldman's just-out animated musical, Anastasia, is vastly superior to Rock-a-Doodle, with the new film boasting first-rate animation and voice talent, plus technical proficiency. But on a number of creative levels it fails.

The story is roughly based on Fox's 1956 melodrama of the same name, which, in turn, was adapted from a stage play. In the 1956 film a beautiful amnesiac (Ingrid Bergman in a role that earned her an Oscar) is convinced to impersonate Princess Anastasia, the daughter of Russia's pre-Revolution ruling family, the Romanovs. (Depending on what you want to believe, the real princess did or didn't survive the onslaught of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and many pretenders have claimed to be the princess in the intervening years.)

In a brief prelude set in 1916, Bluth and Goldman introduce the major characters: eight-year-old Anastasia (voice of Kirsten Dunst), youngest of the Romanov children; her grandmother, the Grand Duchess (Angela Lansbury), 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 revolution.

Ten years pass. Anastasia (now Meg Ryan), with no memory of her royal past, leaves the orphanage in which she has been raised and heads for Paris to search for her identity. In Leningrad she meets the grown Dimitri (now John Cusack), a scam artist who auditions girls to pose as Anastasia, a scheme he hopes will help him to snag a piece of the Romanov fortune. Dimitri and his sidekick Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) hire the real Anastasia to pretend to be, uh, the real Anastasia. On the way to Paris, Dimitri and Vlad groom their new recruit, preparing her for a meeting with the Grand Duchess.

Meanwhile, a now-dead Rasputin -- decomposing in an underworld-like Limbo -- is informed by his bat companion Bartok (Hank Azaria) that Anastasia is still alive; his curse remains unfulfilled, which is why Rasputin hasn't made his way to a permanent spot in Hell. The monk sends out various minions to dispatch the last Romanov -- the Grand Duchess is presumably from the other side of the royal family -- but ultimately finds it necessary to venture to the surface to do the job himself.

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 saccharinity. "It's a perfect ending," one character says. "No, it's a perfect beginning," replies another, as the princess and her lover defy their class differences and sail off on a big ocean liner... which turns out to be the Titanic, and they hit an iceberg and all die! (No, wait! That's next month. Though you have to wonder if anyone at Fox noticed that the studio's two big, year-end releases dovetailed so perfectly.)

Anastasia falls down on two important counts. First, there are far too many musical numbers, which wouldn't be a problem if only the score were more memorable, but it's even blander than Pocahontas; its sole attempt at humor ("Learn to Do It") just isn't funny. Second, the storytelling and pacing are slow: For a 90-minutes-plus animated feature, very little happens. The basic plot: Anastasia learns to be her true self in order to convince the Grand Duchess, and in the process she's periodically threatened by Rasputin's goons. That's it.

Which brings us to the subject of historical veracity: According to the film's quartet of writers, the Russian Revolution sprang from nowhere as a result of a supernatural curse by Rasputin. Hmmm. 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.

Before you say, "It's just a kid's film -- lighten up," consider, for example, a cartoon about World War II that reduces 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. Hey, kids, anti-Semitism? What's that? Fascist ideology? Never heard of it!

No one would sit still for that, and Anastasia's premise is just as bad. Little kids may already have 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.

Anastasia.
Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Written by Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White. Starring the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, and Christopher Lloyd.

 
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