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Anastasia

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Anastasia

Starring: Meg Ryan, Hank Azaria
Director: Don Bluth
Rated: G
RunTime: 90 Minutes
Release Date: November 1997
Genres: Animation, Kids, Family, Music, Action


*Also starring: John Cusack, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, Bernadette Peters



Review by MrBrown
3 stars out of 4

Months before its release, Fox's epic animated musical Anastasia had been touted as the first legitimate challenge to Disney's animation empire, which looked more vulnerable than ever after the disappointing box office (and, as it turns out, merchandising) performance of the fun-but-phoned-in Hercules. Now that the film has arrived in theatres, does the Mouse indeed have reason to worry? During its exquisite first twenty or so minutes, I found myself agreeing with the buzz, but the film soon collapses under the weight of convention, becoming a merely pleasant entertainment.

A harrowing prologue set in 1916 swiftly gives us the necessary backstory: during a revolution the entire Russian royal family is killed save for the czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia (spoken by Kirsten Dunst, sung by Lacey Chabert), who is lost after escaping from the palace; and her grandmother, Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury), who left Russia for Paris just before the unrest. Then the film flashes forward in time, jumping into its buoyant opening number, "A Rumor in St. Petersburg," which introduces the main action: the presumed-dead princess is rumored to be alive, and with their eye on a possible financial reward from the Empress, con men Dimitri (spoken by John Cusack, sung by Jonathan Dokuchitz) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) seek out a young woman who can be a believable Anastasia stand-in. While a big opening production number is part of the Disney formula, directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman approach it in a fresh way. In Disney films, the characters do little more than sing and slightly sway to the music; here, the style is more live-action Broadway and MGM, with background characters forming a full-on dance chorus, spontaneously breaking into heavily choreographed moves.

Dimitri and Vlad ultimately find their perfect impostor in orphan Anya (spoken by Meg Ryan, sung by Liz Callaway), and that's no accident--she truly _is_ Anastasia, but with barely any recollection of her royal past. Freshly released from an unpleasant orphanage, Anya articulates her dream of having a family in the stirring "Journey to the Past." This number is equivalent to the Disney "I Want" song in function, but once again the stage-influenced execution sets it apart, with Anya literally prancing her way through the snow-covered forest and even capping her song by dramatically raising her arms into the air (you almost expect the movie to pause for audience applause).

Right before Anya meets up with the scheming duo comes a truly stunning, magical moment--as it turns out, the film's way-too-premature peak. She steps foot in the ballroom of the abandoned palace, crooning the hauntingly beautiful "Once Upon a December," a lullaby her grandmother used to sing with her when she was young. After a single verse, the ghosts of the past waltz in through the windows, enveloping her, creating a lavish ball out of thin air.

By this song's end, the glitter and glamour disappears, and so does much of the luster of the film. The songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (the latter of whom holds a special place in my and many others' hearts for her enduring work on ABC's Schoolhouse Rock!) become increasingly forgettable, and even worse, the story loses some steam. The strict adherence to the established Disney formula becomes a hindrance. There is really no dramatic need to include an out-and-out villain in the piece, but, true to convention, there is one: evil monk Rasputin (spoken by Christopher Lloyd, sung by Jim Cummings), whose supernatural curse on the royal family caused its near-destruction. While the dying Rasputin's plot does lead to some standout sequences (in particular a suspenseful and spectacular sea storm scene), and the running gag of his body parts constantly fall off is amusing, I never felt as if he and his sidekick, wisecracking albino bat Bartok (Hank Azaria), played a necessary role in this story; they seemed to be shoehorned in for formula's sake. More interesting and involving than the good-versus-evil plot is the romantic sparring between Anya and Dimitri; this may sound odd, but Ryan and Cusack generate a lot of chemistry with their voices. But the resolution to their romance is far from satisfying. Instead of being moved by the ending, I was merely pleased.

One thing, however, does remain consistently impressive throughout Anastasia, and that is the visuals. The animation is a little ragged and not nearly as fluid as Disney work, but the artwork is outstanding. From its beautiful handdrawn images to the three-dimensional computer-generated work, all shot in the 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio (the first animated feature to be shot so since 1959's Sleeping Beauty), Anastasia truly looks and feels like an epic even when the goings-on are less so.

In the end, the heavily hyped Anastasia does not announce Fox's animation division as a challenger to Disney's throne. What it does announce, however, is Fox as a _potential_ challenger. Anastasia may not be great, but it is good, and if the film is a jumping-off point for the fledgling animation house, the Mouse should be prepared for a war.

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