Opened: November 21, 1997 | Rated: G
As animated kiddie movies about grim and frightful topics go, "Anastasia" isn't bad.
With its roots in the Communists' gruesome assassination of Czar Nicholas' family in 1917, it's certainly no worse an idea than an animated "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and this movie is more fun than poor Quasimodo could ever be.
Created by Disney rival Don Bluth ("An American Tale," "All Dogs Go To Heaven") as a launching project for 20th Century Fox's new animation house, "Anastasia" pretty much skips right over all that unpleasant slaughtered family business.
This is a fairy tale version of the persistent rumor that the Czar's youngest daughter escaped the night her family was killed and lived as a peasant orphan for years before remembering who she was.
A sassy and determined heroine in the Disney-style tradition, Anastasia has Meg Ryan's speaking voice, which is perfect casting.
Not yet aware of her heritage and living under the name of Anya, she teams up with charming young Dimitri (John Cusack) and his mentor Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer), a pair of St. Petersburg hustlers who want to pass her off as the missing Anastasia to extort money from the Czar's mother (Angela Lansbury), who lives in Paris.
The trio board a train and begin instructing Anya in the ways of royalty, but their path is marred by the meddling of the undead Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), a soothsayer of sorts who literally sold his soul to have a hand in the execution of the Russian royals.
Rasputin, who's rotting corpse of a body is played for some gross laughs now and again, is the wicked witch of the story, determined to destroy Anastasia simply for the sake of being evil.
He summons up his supernatural minions to wreak havoc on Anya and her partners as they travel to Paris, which leads to, among other things, a spectacular train crash that demonstrates how smoothly this movie blends hand and computer animation.
The overall quality of the art in "Anastasia" is adequate -- somewhere between a Saturday morning cartoon and the medium's pinnacle maintained by Disney. The main characters are handsomely drawn but their mouths don't always sync up to the soundtrack.
That soundtrack includes a number of over-produced, largely forgettable songs. One of them, Rasputin's I'm-so-evil theme song "In the Dark of the Night," is so cheesy it could have been a left-over from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." There are no tunes in "Anastasia" you'll catch yourself humming later in the day.
Borrowing heavily from "Cinderella" and "My Fair Lady" (Anastasia is the spitting image of Audrey Hepburn after a Paris shopping episode) this movie lacks originality to be sure. But it's entertaining enough to get a thumbs up from the adolescent set and will at least hold the interest of accompanying adults.
Having something for everyone seems to be a driving force for this film. For little girls there's the "Cinderella" element and a love-hate romance with Dimitri. For little boys there's crashing trains and the dismembered Rasputin. Mom and dad will likely enjoy spotting what seems to be subtle digs at Disney's dominance in the animated fairy tale genre.
However the last act, involving Rasputin getting what's coming to him, feels like an afterthought. It follows what would traditionally be the happy ending and drags the story out in a way that will inspire much impatient fidgeting in the seats.
An admirable effort, "Anastasia" doesn't begin to threaten Disney's strangle hold on the creation of modern classics like "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King." In the long run it will collect dust on family video shelves along with the other Don Bluth movies kids own but rarely watch.