Rated G - Running time: 1:37 - Released 11/21/97

In his several-year run against the Disney titan, animation producer Don Bluth has turned out some respectable contenders, such as An American Tail, All Dogs Go To Heaven, and The Land Before Time. But now he has really come into the big leagues. Teaming up with co-producer Gary Goldman, Bluth has delivered a masterpiece that is absolutely on a par with recent Disney greats like Beauty and The Beast and Aladdin, except for one thing. I'll get to that in a minute.

Featuring an all-star cast of voices headed by Meg Ryan and John Cusack, Anastasia is packed with emotion, action, comedy, and better than average vocal characterizations. Not to mention epic production numbers, exquisite computer animation, and incredibly detailed background paintings. The film is so rich with subtle references and clever adult-oriented humor that I would almost recommend it for grown-ups more than children, but, of course, there is plenty of juvenile hilarity to go around. Another great element is the music, with a rich score by David Newman and several great songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

This is based (very loosely) on the true story of the grand dutchess Anastasia of Russia, the youngest child of Tsar Nicholas Romanov, who was executed along with the rest of his family by the Bolsheviks in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. The real Anastasia was presumed dead for many years as well, but evidence later suggested that the 8-year-old girl may have escaped into anonymity. In this version, "Anya" (Ryan) turns up at an orphanage, unaware of who she is because of a blow to the head suffered during her escape. After coming of age and leaving the orphanage, she meets up with a young man named Dimitri (Cusack), who, along with his friend Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer), has been planning to train some young lass to "act" like the long-missing grand dutchess. Then he would return her to the remaining royal family, Anastasia's grandmother in Paris (Angela Lansbury), and collect the substantial reward. Trouble is, others have tried to scam the wealthy dowager before, and she's completly fed up. Still, Dimitri and Vladimir convince Anya she's got nothing to lose, and before their long voyage from St. Petersburg to Paris is over, Dimitri is convinced she's the real thing.

Meanwhile, the evil Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), who has a grudge against the Romanov family, has sold his soul for the power to "get" the dutchess. He and his not-so-willing accomplice, a bat named Bartok (Hank Azaria of The Simpsons fame), provide loads of comic relief, and at times some real terror, to the plot. Azaria's voice characterization is hilarious, reminiscent of a Tim Conway character from the old Carol Burnett Show.

The one flaw I mentioned is that the character animation is a little rough, as is the blend between traditional and computer generated artwork. Close-up faces do not move quite as smoothly as Disney's, but this does not have anything to do with technique or talent, it's about MONEY. Perhaps the film could have used a few more frames per second, but that surely would have added several zeros to the production cost. Obviously, most of this picture's audience will not notice, since they are accustomed to the terrible animation now prevalent on Saturday morning cartoons.

All in all, this is one of the best animated features I have ever seen, Disney or otherwise. Since it is based on a true story, and not loaded with talking animals or magic kitchenware, it has an adult feel, a simple reality. If you like animated features, or ever have, then absolutely do not miss this movie. *****

Copyright 1997 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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