1997, G, 94 min. Directed by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman. Voices by Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Angela Lansbury, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 21, 1997

Anastasia, the first feature-length offering from the new Fox animation studio, may not beat Disney at its own game, but it sure won't be for lack of trying. This sumptuous-looking film clearly spared no expense in its visual rendering; its optical flourishes and attention to detail aim for the Disney gold standard and, for the most part, come pretty darn close. The vocal talents are all solid and the songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are pleasant enough, although on first listen there doesn't appear to be any breakout hit in the bunch. (One unfortunate song early in the film during which comical Russian workers sing of the deprivations of the post-revolutionary period is needlessly tasteless, however.) Where this animated feature's two-dimensionality becomes most visible is in its storyline -- a sanitized confabulation about the history of the Russian Revolution and a formulaic cartoon plot about a teen searching for a sense of belonging and unconditional love. Whether Anastasia's amnesiac would-be princess garners many enduring fans beyond its target demographic of young adolescent girls remains to be seen. The movie relies heavily on Wizard of Oz-ish "There's no place like home" sentiments and the Cinderella-like yearnings for more fitting destinies. In this tale, however, our princess earns her crown not through the kiss of a handsome prince or the fit of a glass slipper but through something more akin to the modern psychological process of "recovered memory." During a several-minute-long preamble, we're shown the origins of the Russian Revolution and the source of Anastasia's plight. The culprit is Rasputin (Lloyd), who, for the purposes of this story, is an evil sorcerer solely responsible for unleashing all the country's pre-revolutionary social unrest. Even once he's dead, Rasputin obsessively follows Anastasia's progress, not through a crystal ball like Oz's Wicked Witch but through the fortune-telling glass of a reliquary devotional. Of course, recent discoveries and the advent of DNA testing has proved the fraudulence of the whole historical Anastasia phenomenon in which a parade of young girls tried to convince the Dowager Empress that each was the rumored palace refugee Anastasia -- the rightful heir to the felled Romanov dynasty and fortune. Back in 1956, the story won an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman in a live-action drama and, indeed, the heart of this animated tale remains that of a young girl's search for her family roots. Such warm-and-fuzzy concepts better lend themselves to agreeable rhyme schemes and cute animal companions than tough words like "Communist" "Bolshevik" and "Romanov." Still, this Anastasia is a feisty little heroine, often delightfully un-regal and un-ladylike. She's almost enough to make you forget the words of "The Internationale."

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Anastasia, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman

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