Review by Michael Jacobson
Voices: Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Angela
Lansbury, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria
Directors: Don Bluth and Gary Goldman
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: March 22, 2011
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 Disney’s most prolific animators, but he left the studio in the 80’s 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. They’ve been pop song infested musicals with cute characters and comic sidekicks, but he’s never gotten close to achieving the kind of charm and whimsical magic of Disney’s 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 viewer’s imagination away.
I wasn’t 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 tale—so much so, that it’s 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 it’s obvious he’s 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 can’t 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 he’s 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. It’s just as well…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 doesn’t even shatter…it 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 doesn’t 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 I’m very thankful they let Bernadette Peters sing. I was afraid for a moment she wasn’t 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 from that.
I don't know what it is with this title, but it's had no luck in the quality control department. Much as it was with the DVD, Fox has released one of the poorest looking animated features to Blu-ray to date with Anastasia. It didn’t help that Bluth’s 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 it’s just this spread out red splotch. Not what you expect when you combine animation with high definition.
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 puzzle game.
Anastasia may have been an attempt to create a classic animated feature in the Disney tradition, but it fell short in many ways. It lacked 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 that’s left is a rather flat, uninspiring and detached movie.