History in the Faking

Disney Studios has had a near-monopoly on feature animation for almost 60 years now, and near-monopolies are nearly as destructive as full-on monopolies. Twentieth Century Fox is to be applauded for going up against the giant mouse; one only wishes that its first effort were more to crow about.

Over the last three years, Fox has built an ambitious new animation studio in Phoenix and put the promising Don Bluth and Gary Goldman in charge. The two were an obvious choice: Since they defected from Disney in the late 1970s, they've turned out the studio's strongest competition -- An American Tail, The Secret of NIMH and The Land Before Time. 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 1990 Rock-a-Doodle was 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.

Anastasia is vastly superior to Rock-a-Doodle: The animation and the voice talent are first-rate, and all the technical elements deliver. But on a number of creative levels it fails.

The story is roughly adapted from Fox's 1956 melodrama of the same name, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar. In a brief prelude, we meet the major characters: eight-year-old Anastasia (voice by 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 the curse, which arrives in the form of the Russian Revolution.

Ten years pass: Anastasia (now Meg Ryan), with no memory of her royal past, leaves the orphanage in which she was raised and heads for Paris to search for her identity. In St. Petersburg, she meets Dimitri (now John Cusack), who is a scam artist, auditioning girls to pose as Anastasia in hopes of grabbing a piece of the Romanov fortune. Dimitri and his sidekick Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) hire Anastasia to pretend to be Anastasia. On the way to Paris, they groom her, in preparation for her meeting with the Grand Duchess.

Meanwhile, Rasputin is informed by his bat companion, Bartok (Hank Azaria), that Anastasia is still alive; the curse is not yet fulfilled, which is why Rasputin is decomposing in Limbo rather than taking his permanent place in Hell. The dead monk sends out various minions to dispatch the last Romanov -- the Grand Duchess is presumably from the other side of the royal family -- before venturing to the surface himself to finish off the job.

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 saccharine. "It's a perfect ending," one character says. "No, it's a perfect beginning," replies another, as the two defy their class differences and sail out 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.)

While Anastasia roughly follows the traditional Disney formula, it falls down on a number of counts. There are far too many musical numbers -- which wouldn't be so bad if only the song score were more memorable. But it's even blander than the music in Pocahontas, and its sole attempt at humor ("Learn to Do It") just isn't funny. (On the whole, Anastasia's humor is weak.)

The storytelling and pacing are slow: Given that it's a 90-minute-long animated feature, very little happens. The basic plot -- Anastasia learning to be her true self in order to convince the Grand Duchess of her identity-- is periodically threatened by Rasputin's goons ... and that's it.

Which brings us to the subject of historical veracity: According to Fox, the Russian Revolution sprang from nowhere as a result of a supernatural curse by Rasputin. (Hmmm, what did happen to the 1905 Revolution, I wonder?) 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 kids' film; lighten up," consider, for instance, the idea of a cartoon about World War II that reduced 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 SchicklgrYber. Hey, kids, anti-Semitism? What's that? Fascist ideology? Never heard of it!

No one would sit still for that ... and Anastasia is worse. Little kids may have already 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.

Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. With the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd and Kelsey Grammer.

Rated G.
88 minutes.


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