The oft-told tale of Anastasia Romanov – made an orphan by the Russian Revolution, searching for her lost family, tangling with the evil Rasputin – seems to become more mythic and less attached to reality each time it is revamped.
With the latest, animated Anastasia, handsomely and intricately mounted by the team of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (All Dogs Go to Heaven ), the story has been boiled down to a pure and simple romance of youth, beauty and mistaken identity, set against a procession of magnificent backdrops.
There is much life, colour and restless commotion in the new telling of this tale. The voices provided for Anastasia (Meg Ryan) and her reluctant suitor Dimitri (John Cusack) are clever and up-beat, while the figure of Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his young winged accomplice (Hank Azaria) provide welcome doses of mild Freddy Krueger-style horror and camp humour.
Bluth and Goldman display grand aspirations in their projects, but their approach is, finally, rather stuffily classical. They place high premium on a certain realism of their animated characters' movements, expressions and gestures. This is achieved through an extensive use of live action reference – using footage of real actors as a guide for the animators.
One of the oddest effects of this technique here is that Anastasia and Dimitri mince around like modern teenagers, while almost everyone around them looks like expressionistic caricatures from a 1950s Disney animated feature.
What is missing from Anastasia is any sense of the freedom offered by animation – the liberation from the shackles of real appearances and earthbound movements explored in such breakthrough films as Akira (1988) or the best Disney work.
On the other hand, the most delightful and entrancing visual moments in Anastasia come from Bluth and Goldman's use of a technique that approximates the photo-realism that was once popular in painting – vast architectural facades and exterior scenes that are so exactly rendered that they become hallucinatory, hyperreal visions that you want to reach out and touch.
Anastasia is in the middle ground of animated features for children – far better than Pocahontas (1995) but not in the league of The Little Mermaid (1995). The music and songs contribute to this middling effect – they are bright and bouncy enough, but have the stale air of discarded, old show tunes.
MORE Bluth & Goldman: Titan A. E.
© Adrian Martin June 1998