It may not be the year’s riskiest showbiz move, but you have to wonder why Twentieth Century Fox is launching its first counteroffensive against the Disney empire with Anastasia, a $50 million-plus animated musical that attempts to conjure up the shimmering fairy-tale wonder of … the demise of imperial Russia. For all their emotional sweep, the best Disney cartoons (Snow White, The Lion King) have had the razzle-dazzle appeal of fantasy. In Anastasia, however, veteran animation directors Gary Goldman and Don Bluth (An American Tail) marry their state-of-the-art facsimile of Disney’s plush visual exuberance to something more self-consciously old-fashioned, a lavish period love story that strives for the tremulous romantic grandeur of a David Lean tearjerker.
Their heroine is Anastasia, starry-eyed princess of the Romanov dynasty, whose childhood comes to an abrupt end when the evil magician Rasputin (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) places a curse on the czar’s family, thereby inciting the Russian revolution. Thrown off her pedestal, the newly orphaned Anastasia grows up into ”Anya” (Meg Ryan), a spunky 18-year-old vagabond with only a dim recollection of her royal roots (she seems to be a victim of repressed memory syndrome). Then she runs into Dimitri (John Cusack), a former palace servant-turned-dashing con man. He’s looking for someone to pretend to be the princess, so that he can return her to her exiled grandmother in Paris and collect a reward of many rubles.
Anastasia has the Disney house style down cold: the musical numbers that sound like mid-’60s Broadway, the gorgeous stately/psychedelic backgrounds, the funky beasties nattering on the sidelines. So why does the movie, for all its pleasurable craftsmanship, feel a touch depersonalized? Maybe because the story’s somber emotional hook — Anastasia’s thwarted desire for home — is asserted rather than dramatized. (This may have something to do with the fact that she’s cast out of the palace before we’ve had a chance to enjoy her being there.) Lloyd’s villain glowers and schemes, but there’s little wit or surprise to his campily accented old-world theatrics. Aspiring young princesses will probably enjoy Anastasia, but for anyone else, this challenger to the Disney kingdom may prove to have everything but magic. B-