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
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.