Review by Michael Jacobson
Voices: Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Angela
Lansbury, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria
Directors: Don Bluth and Gary Goldman
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1, Standard 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: November 16, 1999
When 20th Century Fox released their first animated
feature, Anastasia, it was clear they were
looking to stake their claim in Disney territory right from the start. Unfortunately, while mimicking the formula, they
missed the magic by quite a bit.
I must confess, I love animation, but I have never been a fan of Don
Bluth. Bluth, as you know, used to be one of
Disneys most prolific animators, but he left the studio in the 80s to form his
own company. He had been a part of the Disney
team for a long time, so he clearly thought he knew how to make features of the same
caliber. Unfortunately, each entry from his
long line of films has been nothing more than Disney Lite.
Theyve been pop song infested musicals with cute characters and comic
sidekicks, but hes never gotten close to achieving the kind of charm and whimsical
magic of Disneys animation. His
characters were always rather flat and uninteresting.
He never created a sense of wonder with his art designs, drawings, and backgrounds
that could really sweep a viewers imagination away.
I wasnt aware when I first went into Anastasia that Bluth was involved, but I
recognized the signature stylings right from the start.
As Disney has enjoyed success with the strong, feisty heroine character during
their recent animation renaissance, so then, does Bluth copy the formula. He therefore chose Anastasia, not a fairy tale or a legend but a
true historical story, as a sort of jumping off point.
Needless to say, he completely warps history to suit his vision of a Disney
taleso much so, that its extremely distracting.
He might as well go the full nine and make a sequel where Princess Anastasia
returns to the throne of Russia, brings back tsarism, and vanquishes the Communist party.
As typical for Bluth, there are many instances where its
obvious hes imitating Disney, but falls short either by lack of talent or patience. For example, there is a moment when Anastasia is
standing sideways and being reflected in a mirror. The
reflection is not inverted, as it would be in real life, but rather just a straight Xerox
image. Then there are the bits of computer
animation that stick out like a cockroach on a white carpet. It looks as though no attempt were really made to
blend those segments with the hand drawings in the scenes.
Like Disney, Bluth sometimes uses his animation to simulate moving cameras, but
unlike them, he cant quite nail his stationary objects down, leading to a bizarre
feeling of floating for the characters and other items.
He felt the need to have a villain (and when in need of a Russian
villain, why not Rasputin?), but then he does hardly anything with him. You could have actually completely cut him out of
the picture for as much as he serves the story. Fifteen,
twenty minutes or more at a time go by where hes not seen, nor is his presence even
felt. Essentially, Rasputin exists so that he
can have Bartok as a comedy sidekick
such an element would be out of place in the
more serious story of Anastasia. And as far
as sidekicks go, Bartok the bat is about as worthless as they come. No personality, unfunny, even voiced rather
annoyingly by a normally talented actor, Hank Azaria, who whines and swallows his
consonants. Its just as
nobody really gives Bartok anything to work with, other than the running gag
that Rasputin is dead and continually loses body parts.
There are one or two memorable and well rendered sequences, but even
they tend to be victimized by something that spoils the effect. The opening gala at the Russian palace is
beautiful, and detailed. Then a chandelier
falls. It doesnt even shatter
falls like a dead weight.
The voice casting is somewhat hit and miss. Misses include the aforementioned Azaria, and Meg
Ryan as Anastasia. She just doesnt
sound right for the part
a little too perky, and too American. Kelsey Grammer and Angela Lansbury are the real
standouts, bringing a real sense of vim and nobility to their roles. And Im very thankful they let Bernadette
Peters sing. I was afraid for a moment she
wasnt going to get a song, and that would be like hiring Robin Williams and asking
him not to crack any jokes.
Anastasia did prove,
however, that other studios beside Disney could succeed in the animated feature game, and
obviously, Fox worried Disney enough to make them re-release The Little Mermaid to theatres to counter the
effects. And while Fox staked their claim by
imitating Disney right down to the publicity machine and mass merchandising, their success
opened the doors for other studios like Dreamworks with The Prince of Egypt and Warner with The Iron Giant, both features with enough
confidence to challenge the champion by taking the art forms in new and better directions. All fans of animation have reaped the benefits
Im sad to say, but Fox has released one of the poorest looking animated features to DVD to date with Anastasia. It didnt help that Bluths palate of colors were never as bright and vibrant as other animators to begin with, but to top it off, there is horrendous color bleeding throughout. Some sequences are a lot better, but still, most edges are not well defined, and particularly when the backgrounds are a strong monochrome like red, you can see foreground colors bleeding off into them and vice versa. Or when a character picks up a rose, and its just this spread out red splotch. The print is clean, but there is no anamorphic transfer offered, which of course means that what were seeing on screen is not a transfer struck with DVD in mind.
The 5.1 soundtrack fares much better, though, with a few lively and
dynamic sequences and a good score with songs to go along with them. The music
really comes to life in all channels making for a good listening experience, and there are
some selective uses of the rear speakers and the subwoofer to bring a few of the
action-oriented sequences to life. No real complaints here.
The disc contains a trailer, a half hour documentary, a featurette
(which is essentially the low calorie version of the documentary), two sing-alongs and a
Anastasia may have been an
attempt to create a classic animated feature in the Disney tradition, but it falls short
in many ways. It lacks the spirit, the power,
the imagination, and the magic. By trying to
create a fairy tale musical from somber historical events and peppering it with pop songs
and characters that looked like they were designed specifically to go on Burger King
glasses, all thats left is a rather flat, uninspiring and detached movie. If your kids really dug it, then go ahead and grab
this DVD for them, but if not, steer them toward The
Prince of Egypt or The Iron Man.