Don Bluth’s career reached its apex here. He’d left Disney after The Fox and the Hound, and scored a hit with my personal favourite of his movies, The Secret of NiMH. He’d also teamed up with Spielberg for the highly successful The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail. Then came Anastasia, which was a big hit and is fondly remembered by numerous people only casually interested in animation as one of their favourite Disney films. While this could have been Fox’s big entry into the world of serious, epic animation, however, Bluth blew it with bloated follow-up Titan AE. It wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely a flop and Fox didn’t make another animated feature film until sure-fire cash-in The Simpsons Movie.
So in many ways Anastasia is Bluth’s masterpiece – though we shouldn’t write him off yet, as the crowd-funded Dragon’s Lair animation may yet be a big hit. It’s certainly a good animated film – grand in scale, beautiful to look at with strong narrative-driven music. It has its faults but it’s definitely up there with the best and may have the most beautiful backgrounds of any animation I’ve ever seen.
Anastasia deals with a familiar story, a kind of modern fairy tale. After the Russian revolution, Grand Duchess Anastasia is still alive, living with amnesia in a Russian orphanage. She is taken to her grandmother by men who want to defraud her, though eventually the truth shines through. Made in 1997, this film came before the remains of Alexei and either Anastasia or Maria (the other having been in the main grave) were discovered – though in no way claimed to be historically accurate, or demanded to be taken seriously. The plot is lifted in simplified form from an earlier live-action movie, so the film is not the source for the fanciful interpretation of history.
In visual terms, the film has much to recommend it, but is in places uneven. Bluth’s debt to Disney has never been so apparent, especially with squirrels that look straight out of Sword in the Stone and the cute little dog Pooka who looks a lot like Gurgi in true dog form. The facial designs are very Disney and Rasputin here owes a lot to Jafar (who of course owes a lot to Zigzag), unfortunately being just a little too comedic rather than formidable for my liking. He is a little too distant, sending minions to sabotage trains or putting visions into Anastasia’s head when she’s asleep, only appearing for a showdown at the very end and then being rather ineffectual. There’s an echo of Scar in his musical number, too, which is particularly appropriate given JimCummings provides the singing performance.
But the speaking voice comes from Christopher Lloyd, one of several actors clearly having a wonderful time here. Meg Ryan and John Cusack turn in uninteresting leading character performances, but there’s far more fun to be had with Angela Lansbury putting in a bit of class, Hank Azaria mixing a cod-Russian accent with his Chief Wiggum voice for adorable comedy sidekick Bartok the Bat, and Kelsey Grammar hamming it up as affable fat man Vlad.
The romance doesn’t sizzle, the bad guy doesn’t give any shivers down the spine and the songs don’t worm their way into the brain quite enough. The visuals are also undercut a bit by rather strange facial designs (especially Dimitri’s nose) and an overreliance on rotoscoping every time there’s a full-body shot, but these don’t drag the film down far. It’s satisfying, grandiose and rather beautiful, even if it’s not perfect and doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance to make me want to re-watch. After all, last night was the first time I sat through it again since first watching in 1998!