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-