Starring (voices): Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammar, Christopher Lloyd, Angela Lansbury
The idea of turning the murder of the Romanov family into an animated movie for kids would try the talents of even Steven Spielberg. I guess I can say that Don Bluth does about as good of a job as anyone could. But by staying so far away from any weighty material in favor of light humor and slapstick, he robs it of much of the potential drama.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Anastasia did not survive the attack by the Bolsheviks. While more than a few women (most famously Anna Anderson) have claimed to be her, DNA tests proved that she died with her family. Let me also say that I have no problem with a movie claiming otherwise. After all, some of the best biopics have been born from fudging the truth. Or outright making it up. "Braveheart" is one such example, and there are many others. But even with that leeway, Don Bluth's 1997 film just isn't very interesting.
At a ball celebrating the anniversary of the Romanov family's ascension as the ruling family, a disgruntled former advisor, Rasputin (Lloyd), interrupts. He sells his soul and curses the family for throwing him out, proclaiming that they will all be dead within a fortnight. Using newly acquired supernatural powers, he fans the flames of revolution and men storm the palace. Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst as a child) and her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Lansbury), escape through a secret passageway, but on the train to Paris, the girl gets left behind.
Ten years later, a woman with no past named Anya (Ryan) has just left an orphanage. She has a key around her neck that says "Together in Paris," and decides to go there to see if she can figure out who she is. To get there, she enlists the help of two con artists, Dmitri (Cusack) and Vlad (Grammar), who are trying to find a woman who can fool Dowager Empress Marie into believing that she is her long lost granddaughter and collect a handsome reward. Dmitri is convinced that Anya is the perfect fake and they take her along (little do they know that she is Anastasia). Meanwhile, Rasputin is in the netherworld and when he finds out that Anastasia has surfaced again, he plots his revenge.
The long and short of it is that this screenplay needed another run through the computer. The story is a little clunky and the dialogue is pedestrian, but with a little beefing up it could have been more entertaining. The story doesn't always make a lot of sense and there are a few obvious plot holes. Nothing extreme, but they are there.
What really hurts the film is its shying away from anything dark. I realize that familicide and political revolution are not appropriate for a kids film, but in an attempt to avoid pushing too many buttons, directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman have gone too far. There are times when we feel the sense of loss and alienation, but those are few. A little more edge could have given the film a firmer foundation.
At least the acting is fine. Meg Ryan and John Cusack are great; it's a wonder why no one tried pairing them up in a live action romantic comedy. Kelsey Grammar and Hank Azaria (as Bartok the bat) are unrecognizable as the sidekicks, while Christopher Lee turns up the nasty as the villainous Rasputin. Angela Lansbury adds a dose of class to the film as the Dowager Empress.
"Anastasia" is the first musical from Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, and its a mixed bag. I wouldn't mind that the actors sound nothing like the singers (which they don't) if there weren't so many musical numbers. More importantly, none of the songs are memorable. One or two is mildly catchy, but that's it.
Kind of like the film.