Nashville Scene


REVIEWED: 12-15-97

Hollywood has a notorious herd mentality, illustrated by the rush to cash in on other studios' successes. When Star Wars hit, every sci-fi script at the bottom of every slush pile in L.A. was dragged out and green-lighted; and when Disney started raking in megabucks with its animated musicals, just about every Hollywood studio hired a staff of in-betweeners and started inking cels. Unfortunately, animation is a time-consuming process, and now that these big-budget cartoonaganzas are poised to hit the screen, Disney's box-office magic has started to dull.

Into this climate comes Fox's Anastasia--the first serious competition for Disney's monopoly, and the first in what will be a string of rival animated features from Dreamworks, Warner Bros., and others. Anastasia is helmed by Don Bluth, who has been cranking out such modest and mediocre features as The Land Before Time and Rock-a-Doodle since leaving Disney in the '70s. Given some real money to throw around this time, Bluth splurges on computer effects and "name" actors' voices.

Bluth has Meg Ryan as his amnesiac Anastasia, who is unaware of her royal Russian lineage. He also has John Cusack as Dmitri and Kelsey Grammar as Vlad, two con artists who--equally unaware of Anya's past--coach her to play the missing princess so that they can collect a reward from Anastasia's grandmother, voiced by Angela Lansbury. Working to foil the scheme are the ghost of Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his loyal bat Bartok (hilariously voiced by Simpsons vet Hank Azaria).

Frankly, even with the extra money, Bluth's team doesn't have the pizzazz of Disney. The blending of cel and computer animation is far from seamless, and the constant, pointless fidgeting of the characters is distractingly showoffy. There is a compelling, romantic story here, with decent songs, but aside from a thrilling train chase and a haunting sleepwalking sequence, nothing is as resonant as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King.

The biggest problem is one of purpose. The only real reason to make Anastasia a cartoon is because the story is well-served in a musical format, where complicated emotions can be captured by a pretty melody. Sadly, musicals today are acceptable to a mass audience only if they feature cartoon animals. Thus we end up with a muddle like Anastasia, which hedges bets by forcing an interesting romance into the narrow slots that Disney has carved for animated musical features. This story doesn't really need a villain, let alone a villain with a helpful bat (no matter how cute he may be).

If studios really want to challenge Disney, they need to go in different directions, especially now that Disney has wandered into a creative dead-end. However, since most of the big cartoons that will be released in the next three years were begun when Timon and Pumbaa still had no worries, we'd better just wait for the Western to come back.

--Noel Murray

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