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Movie Review: Anastasia -- Another studio ventures into DisneyUs territory.

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Until now Disney was the only major player in the arena of animation, with the movies like Aladdin and The Lion King bringing more than a billion dollars in revenue. Now, the other companies are jumping into the field: Warner Brothers is preparing The Quest for Camelot for the May 1998 release, and DreamWorks is dreamworking on Prince of Egypt, which is based on the Bible. The first out of the gate is the maiden production from the new 20th Century Fox animation division, Anastasia. Co-directed by a former Disney animator Don Bluth, it happens to be a very entertaining movie, as well as the first valid challenger to Disney's virtual monopoly.

Now, concerning the plot. (Hang on to your berets and babushkas, please.) After mad monk Rasputin cursed the Russian czar Nicolas II Romanov and his whole family, the ensuing revolution fulfilled the curse - with one exception. Nicolas' youngest daughter Anastasia survived, but the shock caused her to lose her memory. Ten years later Anastasia's grandmother offers a reward for the return of her long-lost granddaughter, and two con-men, Dimitry and Vladimir, plan to collect the $10 million reward by finding a suitable girl, an orphan named Anya, and passing her offer for the real thing. Little they know that she is the real thing.

Anastasia firmly adheres to the tried and true formula: a spunky title character, hunky love interest, comic relief sidekick, cute animals, despicable villain, lush animation, and songs'n'dances. The important thing is that most of it works. All the characters are rounded and possess the all-important oddities which don't mean anything, but seem to add up into real personalities. Animation is, mostly, nothing short of stunning, especially the computer generated backgrounds which look as much 3D as you can get this side of Toy Story.

Since the death of Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast lyricist) halfway through Aladdin, Disney has failed to produce anything remotely memorable, with the single exception of The Circle of Life. Here we get a whole bunch of lovely songs, with the main theme, "Once Upon a December," being not only quite touching, but also somehow sounding authentically Russian.

The plot of Anastasia is, admittedly, slight. It exists mainly to string together a bunch of highly effective scenes, and works admirably until the penultimate ten minutes, where we get not one but two sequences that completely fail to work: a curiously convenient moment of total recall, and a ridiculous confrontation between Anya and Rasputin.

Speaking of Rasputin, this is the case where deviating from the formula would have been beneficial. Not every animated movie needs a villain, and this is definitely true for Anastasia. Rasputin spends the whole movie pointlessly spewing and ranting in some kind of a Netherworld (since he's dead after the opening sequence).

I much prefer the rest of the movie, with the romantic subplot being both engaging and non-obvious (peppered with snappy dialogue), the two major action sequences superbly crafted, and the choreography reminding of, strangely enough, American in Paris. By the way, Anastasia owes at least as much to the 1950s and 60s live-action musicals as to recent Disney extravaganzas.

But please, please, please, don't go in expecting anything remotely realistic. This is a movie where the talking bat is by far the least far-fetched aspect. Compared to this one, Pocahontas feels like a documentary.

Directed by Don Bluth

Written by Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudkier and Noni White

Voices by Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst, and Angela Lansbury.