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'Anastasia': The Royal Treatment

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 1997


Don Bluth;
Gary Goldman
Meg Ryan;
John Cusack;
Kelsey Grammer;
Christopher Lloyd;
Hank Azaria;
Bernadette Peters;
Kirsten Dunst;
Angela Lansbury
Running Time:
1 hour, 34 minutes
General audience

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"Anastasia," the latest animated feature from Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, is a triumph of survivability and sampling. Ifyou can't beat the paw-stepping momentum of the Mickey Uber Alles entertainment machine, then imitate, imitate, imitate!Bluth and Goldman, graduates of Walt Disney's military industrial complex (where they shaped such films as "Pete's Dragon"and "The Rescuers"), have fashioned their picture to look just enough like Disney without incurring a lawsuit. They've alsoinfused the movie with enough of their own creativity to claim authorship.

The story starts in St. Petersburg in 1916. Little Anastasia, daughter of Czar Nicholas, and her family are trapped in thepalace, when the evil Rasputin and his dark forces storm the building. Thanks to the assistance of Dimitri, a young kitchen boy,the Dowager Empress Marie (voice of Angela Lansbury) and Anastasia escape through a secret tunnel and make a run for thetrain station. As Rasputin pursues them, he falls through a crack in the frozen Volga and sinks to his death. But he remains aforce to contend with; he has sold his soul (which he keeps in a vial, along with green, satanic minions) in exchange for thepower to curse the Romanov family. Marie loses contact with Anastasia at the station and retreats to Paris. Anastasia remainsin Russia.

Cut to St. Petersburg a few years later. Dimitri (the voice of John Cusack), now older, and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer), aformer aristocrat of the old days, are pulling off a royal scam. Hoping to find someone who resembles Anastasia, they intend totake the human facsimile to Paris, then make off with the generous reward that the dowager empress has promised for herdiscovery.

When they bump into a woman named Anya (the real Anastasia, who remembers nothing of her imperial family beginnings),they figure they're on to something. Little do they know, until later, that this fake princess (voiced by Meg Ryan) is the realMcCoy -- or is that Mc-czarevna? As they head to Paris, the dead Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), who is having trouble withhis body parts (they keep falling off), chases them, with a wisecracking albino bat called Bartok (Hank Azaria) in aerial tow.

"Anastasia" isn't going to make history -- in fact, its retelling of the czarist demise is clearly anything but history. Despite claimsfrom a procession of Anastasia pretenders, the entire family perished at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918, according to theRussian government. The movie's songs, composed by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are hardly the bouncy, sing-alongstandard of even Walt Disney's lower offerings. But the movie's infinitely more enjoyable than Disney's sleazily commercial"Hercules." Rasputin's advancing body decay and Bartok's accented (from what culture I'm not even sure) quips will amuseolder viewers.

Bluth's visual style, which has begun to use computer-generated imagery like his bigger competition, is a step up from hisuneven work in such films as "An American Tail," "The Land Before Time," "All Dogs Go to Heaven" and "Rock-a-Doodle."His human figures have become graceful and fluid. There are also impressive, big-scale scenes, such as a train derailment froma snow-covered bridge. And the vocal performances of Ryan and Cusack give us a real sense of romance and the kind ofcute, screwballish bickering we've been led to expect from, well, Disney.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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