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Monday, July 27, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1997)

9. Anastasia
Co-directed with Gary Goldman

After scoring hits of both the cult and box office variety at the beginning of his career, Don Bluth spent most of the nineties in the wilderness. He made a long string of financial bombs and critical flops. Maybe Bluth continued to have a career simply because animation was huge in the nineties. Disney was churning out classic after classic and breaking records at the same time. 20th Century Fox wanted some of that money and decided to start up their own animation studio. Perhaps realizing that Bluth was underserved by the movies he was then making, the studio scooped Bluth and his partner Gary Goldman up. As the creative heads of the brand new Fox Animation Studios, Bluth and Goldman would return to their previous artistic heights with “Anastasia.”

Beginning in 1916, the film introduces the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna as a young girl. Her happy family life is disturbed when Rasputin, the ousted mystics of the family, uses dark magic to turn the Russian people against the royal family. Anastasia’s family is killed, save for her grandmother. The little girl, however, survives, with amnesia. Ten years later, a pair of conmen are training girls to be the Duchess, as to earn the Dowager Empress’ reward. However, they are thrown off when the girl they find, Ana, turns out to be the real thing. Meanwhile, Rasputin is resurrected as an undead ghoul, still planning to end the Romanov bloodline.

“Anastasia’ is notable for being the first Don Bluth movie about grown-up adults. Most of his previous movies were about cute talking animals or magical creatures. Following this logic, the film is a little more mature then anything the director has made since “Secret of NIMH.” Part of this is because of the movie’s inspiration. “Anastasia” was loosely inspired by the 1956 film of the same name. The animated feature frequently plays as an extended homage to old Hollywood glitz and glamour. The film takes place in real locations and the characters are frequently dressed in fancy gowns and glamorous outfits. Even the musical numbers seem directly inspired by the classics of old. This approach gives “Anastasia” a distinct flavor from Bluth’s other films.

“Anastasia” is even more loosely inspired by actual history. We know for sure now but, even back in 1997, the survival of the Grand Duchess was regarded as an urban legend. Presenting the Russian Revolution as the work of a evil sorcerer is in questionable taste. Setting a lively animated musical in Soviet Russia was questioned at the time by some historians. Ultimately, none of that is too important. Kids watching the movie at the time wouldn’t understand the circumstances that actually led to the revolution anyway. “Anastasia” is, instead, a fantasy which has barely any connection to fact. It’s owes more of a debt to old-school Hollywood and what Disney was doing at the time then anything that actually happened.

While the quality of his films have varied wildly over the years, one thing has remained consistent about Don Bluth’s output: It looks nice. The animation is always lovingly created. Even compared to the solid work seen in last few films, the animation in “Anastasia” is eye-popping. The colors are bright and clear. The character movement is fluid and vivid. The detailing is amazing. Even minor characters have a full personality. The digitized animation pushes Bluth and Goldman’s work to previously unseen levels. “Anastasia” is absolutely gorgeous from beginning to end.

“Anastasia” being gorgeous wouldn’t count for much if the film itself wasn’t compelling. Luckily, the movie has got plenty of personality and heart. Though styled after classic Hollywood, the title character has more in common with snarky nineties heroines. Ana, as she’s known for most of the movie, is a spin on the classic Disney princess type. She has a dream, of a family and home bigger then what she’s used to. However, she doesn’t idly wait for this dream to come true. She essentially runs from the orphanage where she was raised, trying to find her own destiny. Her character arc is not your standard animation storyline either. Ana knows she’s meant for greater things but doesn’t remember exactly how. The film is about her rediscovering her own past, which she has dream-like recognitions of. Meg Ryan, still a viable star in 1997, gives Ana a lot of spirit.

“Anastasia” is also a romance, though a much more grown-up one then “The Pebble and the Penguin.” When Ana and Demitri first meet, they don’t have much respect for each other. Ana doesn’t know he’s a con artist but seems to feel that he is. His snarky behavior certainly puts her off. Demitri at first thinks Ana is a simple girl without much to her. The two both have attitudes and they clash. This is classic stuff, the “slap-slap-kiss” dynamic. Their chemistry manifest as tension first. The two playfully call each other names, always denying their obvious attraction. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times. Yet “Anastasia” pulls it off really well. The moment the characters realize they feel something for each other, when they dance on the deck of a ship, is a genuinely disarming moment. The way their romance builds and resolve also feels natural and touching, Ana’s beauty and grace melting Demitri’s cynical heart. It helps that John Cusack is perfectly cast as Demitri, his famously sardonic wit proving to be suited just fine to voice acting.

As I’ve gone through all of Don Bluth’s films, I’ve lamented the awesome villains that used to appear in his pictures disappearing. By 1997, it had seemed like a long time since we saw Sharptooth or Jenner. “Anastasia” corrected this. As a historical figure, Grigori Rasputin was more complex then the mystical die hard boogieman he’s frequently portrayed as. Don’t expect complexity from “Anastasia” though. This Rasputin is an animated bad guy in the mold of many Disney villains. He’s sadistic, relishing his own evil acts. He has a certain style and grace, even a kind of cool, that makes him interesting to watch. He’s also an undead ghoul, which adds a macabre element to the character. I can’t imagine a Disney villain that is a decomposing corpse, literally falling apart several times. He also resides in a dimension made of floating dark matter, surrounded by hellish pools of lava. He controls an army of magical bat-demons, who glow green and perform nasty deeds. It’s hard to imagine these darker elements in a Disney flick, making Rasputin an ideal Don Bluth villain. Christopher Lloyd’s vocal performance brings some comedic energy to the part without ever devaluing him as a threat.

Another way “Anastasia” makes up for the no-risk kiddie flicks Bluth made in the early nineties is that the characters actually feel endangered. There are at least two stand-out moments in the film that gets a thrill out of the audience. The first occurs when the central trio is traveling on a train. Rasputin’s bat-like minions destroy the engine, disconnect the car, and take out a bridge. The characters rush to save themselves, trying to break the train car free with a hammer or dynamite. They make a dangerous dive from the moving train just before it falls to its doom. The sequence is not only beautifully animated but actually exciting. A later moment in “Anastasia” even pushes up against creepy. While on the boat, Rasputin enchants Ana. She has a dream, reunited with her family, painted in a gorgeous golden color. Unbeknownst to her, she’s actually dangling over the edge of the boat. When the dream goes bad, Rasputin appears to Ana, transforming into a demonic bat-monster. Cutting back between her idealistic dream and the spooky reality makes for an exciting sequence.

“Anastasia” doesn’t double-down on cute animal sidekicks. Instead, it only features two. The first of which, one that was merchandised to death, is Bartok. A white talking bat, he’s Rasputin’s usually ignored conscious. Hank Azaria voices the character, bringing his usual manic charm to the part. Bartok skirts up against being annoying, like when he’s professing his karate skills. However, Azaria is amusing enough to avoid this, even if the character doesn’t add much to the film. The second animal sidekick is Pooka, Ana’s puppy dog. Pooka’s flopping ears and happy barking are cute. Thankfully, the character is not anthropomorphized beyond that. Though he accidentally leads our heroine into danger at the end, he also makes himself useful, distracting the villain for a second.

“Anastasia” was obviously a big budget affair and has the star-studded cast to prove it. Aside from Ryan, Cusack, and Lloyd, it also features Kelsey Grammer as Vlad, Demitri’s rotund partner. Grammer’s voice is unrecognizable under a convincing Russian accent. Vlad is lovable, sensible, and another memorable aspect of the film. Angela Lansbury plays the Dowager, bringing her usual sense of refinement to the part. When she’s finally reunited with her Anastasia, the joy in her voice is inviting. Also on hand is Bernadette Peters as Vlad’s equally round love, the charming Sophie. Even Anastasia as a little girl is played by a name talent, in this case Kirsten Dunst. Though name actors, they each do good work, seemingly cast just as much for their skill as their marquee value.

What really makes “Anastasia” a minor classic is its gorgeous musical score. The collection of songs are excellent. “Have You Heard,” the opening number, is insanely catchy, with a chorus designed for crowd sing-alongs. It also helps provide back story to the film. “Journey to the Past” is Ana’s defining number. It’s a lovely, uplifting song. I especially like the quieter bridge in the middle. Rasputin’s song, “In the Dark of the Night,” sung by an instantly recognizable Jim Cummings, is probably the most energetic song in the film. The singing cartoon bugs, bright colors, and swirling staircase makes it a highly memorable number. “Learn to Do It” is lively, upbeat, and character-oriented, letting us learn more about the cast while also entertaining us. The crowning song in the film is “Once Upon a December,” a sweeping, wistful song full of meloncholey and nostalgia. The sequence where its performed features memories coming to life, dancing through a dusty ball room. It’s an incredible song. Bizarrely, the film pushed the inferior “Journey to the Past” as the break-out number. That earned an Oscar nomination. If the studio had focused on “Once Upon a December” instead, it would have won the Oscar, I’m sure.

“Anastasia” is a winner, all the way through. The animation is beautiful. The action is exciting. The romance is compelling while the humor is funny without being overbearing. As a musical, it’s fantastic, not a single song being a dud. The movie would be Don Bluth’s first commercial success in years, re-establishing the director as one of the top filmmakers in his field. Though frequently overshadowed by Disney’s output, like every non-Disney feature cartoon, “Anastasia” still has an audience who remember it as a touching, effective film with gorgeous animation and great songs. [Grade: A-]

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