In the mid-1990s, 20th Century Fox opened up an animation branch and proclaimed that they would be going toe to toe with Disney in the realm of family cartoon films - a bold statement, because at the time, Disney was having the roll of a lifetime, with a chain of popular and critical smashes that returned the studio to the heights of its glory days. Fox's secret weapon was Don Bluth, one of the only animators to find cartoon success outside of Disney.
Bluth, a former Disney animator, had joined forced with MGM to create the cult favorite "The Secret of NIMH," followed a few years later by the wonderful "An American Tail" and "The Land Before Time," and then "All Dogs Go To Heaven," which, despite being one of the very worst cartoons I've ever had the misfortune of watching, was a modest hit, spawning two sequels and a TV series. Bluth's career was in a downward spiral in the early 90s, with titles like "Thumbelina" and "Rock-A-Doodle" being ignored by everyone, and for a good reason.
Then Fox came calling, and the increase in budget allowed Bluth and co-director Gary Goldman to truly break out, winding up creating what is arguably one of the best traditionally animated films made outside of Disney: "Anastasia." The musical, a (very) loose adaptation of the 1956 movie of the same name, became enough of a box office hit upon its release in late 1997 that it looked like Fox Animation could very well take off. Then came the studio's follow-up, Bluth's sci-fi flop "Titan AE," and that was the end of that idea… until computer animation went big, Blue Sky Animation joined forces with Fox, bringing with them "Ice Age" and "Robots," but oh, that's a story for another day.
"Anastasia" is a story rooted in fact but exaggerated so grandly that it becomes a fairy tale. (Those looking for historical accuracy are, I fear, greatly missing the point.) At the core is the old legend of the long lost daughter of Russia's last czar: years after the ruling family's murder, rumors of a survivor brought forth impostors claiming to be the real princess, but ah, what if one such girl was actually the real Anastasia? For obvious reasons, the Russian Revolution is downplayed to near-unimportance, becoming the slightest of set-ups to a story that is now the classic yarn about a girl who didn't know she was actually a princess.
The irony of the story, which the movie unabashedly mentions with great frequency, is that Anastasia is an amnesiac calling herself Anya; she joins up with two con artists who have hatched a scheme to train a young woman to pretend to be the real Anastasia, collecting a handsome reward for her safe return in the process. Ah, but Anya doesn't know about the reward part, as Dimitri and Vlad are conning her into believing that she may be the very woman that they don't know she actually is. There's a great joy to be found in watching the revelations sweep over the various characters.
Filling up the subplot department is the story of Rasputin, who's still not quite dead (his body has a nasty habit of falling apart in a bit of sinister comedy that's just right for kids) and who, having sold his soul long ago for the power to destroy the Romanovs, is eager to off Anastasia. It's Rasputin who puts into effect the film's main action pieces: a daring escape from a runaway train, a nightmare threat on the high seas, and a massive final battle in the streets of Paris. These are all thrilling moments, adding a bit of adventure to this princess romance - but never once feeling as out of place as it could (or even should) be. What's interesting about the Rasputin character is that you could remove him completely from the film and everything would still hold, and yet the addition never feels forced, contrived, or even unnecessary. Sure, the talking bat sidekick is a bit much, giving the film a schizophrenic feel from time to time, but it's all so enjoyable that I couldn't imagine the movie without this stuff. (This is thanks in part to terrific voice over performances from Christopher Lloyd, who creates a genuine threat as Rasputin, and Hank Azaria, as the sidekick bat Bartok, whose goofy accent and oddball commentary are so endearing that he threatens to steal the show.) It is, after all, done in the Disney tradition of larger-than-life villains and fantasy twists.
While the story presents a solid core, much of the film's success comes from the animation, which deftly combines hand-drawn and computer styles in a way that never intrudes on the story itself. Bluth and Goldman keep a close eye on the CGI, always insisting that it enhance the hand-drawn parts without ever coming across as a gimmick. (Their obvious inspiration is the ballroom scene from "Beauty and the Beast," which used CG enhancement to allow for greater flexibility in "camera" movement.) The filmmakers also incorporated a method that used live action performers to become a guide for the animators - the result being cartoon characters that move in astonishingly realistic ways. Add in some clever twists (a song-and-dance scene set in Paris features backgrounds rendered in an Impressionist style) and a glorious use of CinemaScope's widescreen palette (so few cartoons, especially in the video era, bother to go for a full wide image, while "Anastasia" never once lets it go to waste), and you've got an animated work that's nothing short of breathtaking.
The final key in the film's success is, undeniably, its music. The songs - music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens - are works of sheer delight, sounding fresh off the Broadway stage. These are big, bold, exciting numbers. From the grandeur of "A Rumor In St. Petersburg" and "In the Dark of the Night" to the intimacy of "Once Upon a December" and the film's best tune, "Journey To the Past" (which, alas, lost the Best Song Oscar to that darn "Titanic" theme), these are songs that stick with you and beg to be repeated. But more than that, they enhance the film itself, allowing this fairy tale adventure to also become, in its own way, an oversized movie musical on par with the classics of the genre. (It should also be noted that although voice stars Meg Ryan and John Cusack are replaced on the songs by Liz Callaway and Jonathan Dokuchitz, the voice qualities match so well, with the singers getting such a good feel for the actors' vocal patterns, that the dubbing is almost unnoticeable.)
With everything going for it, "Anastasia" is the crown jewel in Bluth's long, varied career. But more than that, it's a crown jewel in modern animation, a grand story that works wonders in so many ways. I have nothing but superlatives for this, a most phenomenal film.
Fox is reissuing "Anastasia" as a two-disc "Family Fun Edition." The upgrade is very welcome, as the earlier release, while better than most of the studio's family efforts, lacked an anamorphic transfer. To make up for the double dip, Fox has gone all out, giving the movie the deluxe treatment it truly deserves (and at a price that will make those who purchased the earlier version happy to upgrade).
One note, though: the artwork for this edition ranks among the very worst DVD covers yet produced. The original cover, which borrowed artwork from the movie's poster and which looked just fine, has been ditched in favor of what at best can be described as bad fan art, and at worst can be described as a colossal mistake. I'm not sure who the woman is on the DVD box, but it sure isn't Anastasia. It's such a shoddy almost-kinda-like-her portrait that I at first mistook the movie for being one of those quickie bargain bin rip-offs from GoodTimes or Sony or whomever. If not for the familiar logo (and Bartok standing next to it), there'd be no telling that this was the genuine article. With any luck, Fox will reissue this set with better artwork, and fast.
As mentioned, the film is offered in its original widescreen (2.35:1) image with anamorphic enhancement. And it's a jaw-droppingly beautiful transfer, making perfect use of the lush color range - the muted colors are properly toned down, while the brighter imagery pops right off the screen. The backgrounds are astonishingly clear, too. It's such a great-looking image that you can really make out the less-than-perfect seams between the hand-drawn and the computer-created animation, a fact that helps date the movie a tad, but does never distracts from the sheer gorgeousness of the piece.
The Dolby 5.1 audio track is equally impressive, allowing the songs to truly knock you over. There's not much use of the surround feature outside of those three big action pieces, but then, not much is required. It's a mix that works in all the right ways. The French and Spanish tracks are also offered in Dolby Surround. Optional subtitles in English and Spanish are also available.
Here's where the set really shines - and where it really, really, really fumbles.
(Note: in a nice, welcome touch, all features are presented in anamorphic widescreen, except where otherwise noted.)
Let's start with Disc One, where we find a commentary track from Bluth and Goldman, who offer up the usual array of "how we did it" stories. Their discussion is intended mainly for the animation buff, and as such, it's nice to hear them second guess themselves on a few issues (Bluth grumbles over color choices in one scene) without the usual self-congratulatory patter that often clogs up such tracks. They manage to do exactly what a commentary should do: enhance one's appreciation of the feature.
"Learn to Draw With Don Bluth" looks at first glance to be one of those horrible featurettes that claim to be able to teach you how to sketch the perfect cartoon in just a few minutes; I always hate seeing those, as they race by too quickly, and they can't possibly expect a kid to master a Scooby-Doo portrait so quickly. Here, Bluth does his best to rectify this. He covers four characters - Anastasia, Dimitri, Rasputin, and Bartok - and he takes a full half hour to do so. More importantly, the disc, through the use of chapter breaks and well-timed pauses, offers the chance of repeating a step as frequently as needed, while Bluth himself makes a terrific teacher, explaining his thinking every step of the way. It's not for everyone (Bluth still makes it look much easier than it is, at least than it is for someone as artistically non-inclined as I am), but for young future artists, it's sure to be something very welcome.
On the other side of the usefulness spectrum comes a collection of sing-alongs. First up here are sing-along versions (basically, clips from the film with highlighted lyric subtitles) for "Once Upon a December" and "Learn To Do It," left over from the earlier DVD release. These came from a VHS release long ago, as evident by the movie clips being offered up in pan-and-scan format. They are window-boxed, however (with a fancy gold pattern that matches the art design of the film on the right and left of the image), helping them fit onto a wide screen.
Also offered in 1.33:1 (but as full screen, not window-boxed) is "Anastasia's Music Box Favorites," a second sing-along - and one that, oddly enough, repeats the same two songs listed above. (This is because it is a rerelease of "Anastasia Sing-Along," a VHS offering from 1997.) It is, essentially, a commercial of sorts for other Fox releases, with sing-alongs for two Shirley Temple numbers, a couple of tunes from "Ferngully," one from "Once Upon a Forest," and - and I'm baffled what this one's doing here," the "Puttin' On the Ritz" number from "Young Frankenstein." Huh? Oh, and the singing-clown-puppet clip from "On the Riviera" is enough to give anyone nightmares for weeks. This feature plays out as a single 25-minute presentation, with chapter stops but no chapter menu. While it's nice to see this here, allowing completists to get all things Anastasia in one package, it's ultimately fairly pointless; the two stand-alone sing-alongs are all we really needed, and even those weren't much.
Rounding out Disc One are two trailers and a TV spot for the film, plus that now-familiar, still-obnoxious anti-piracy PSA and a non-anamorphic widescreen trailer for "Little Manhattan." The disc begins with a 1.33:1 full screen ad for Fox's "Family Fun" special edition DVDs and another for the recent "Cheaper By the Dozen" special edition re-release; both spots, which appear when you load the disc, can be skipped.
Moving on to Disc Two, and my greatest complaint. This disc presents all of its features as part of a game, in which we explore Anastasia's palace - by clicking on arrows, we tell the disc which part of the castle to search, which leads us to either the various bonus features or lessons on various pieces of Russian culture (nesting dolls, etc.), depending on what you find where. It is, in a word, horrible. I just want the extras, not a treasure hunt. Fortunately, there is a separate menu that allows you to bypass the game and go directly to each feature - except for the "Russian History Clickables" (as the DVD artwork calls them), which are only available to those willing to click around for half an hour or so. Meanwhile, even if you start with the menu shortcut, finishing each feature will dump you into the part of the game where that feature is to be found, so you still need to do some extra clicking just to get back to where you want to be. This is a waste, really; the DVD producers should've just offered up a standard menu, and placed the "Clickables" in a separate search-the-palace game.
At least the features themselves make up for the nuisance of all that button-pushing. First up is a pleasant surprise and a very welcome bonus, the complete direct-to-video sequel, "Bartok the Magnificent." It's a cute but slightly forgettable spin-off, with more of Azaria's delightful bat. Including it here is a great touch, making this a two-for-one set; fans who want to see more Bartok without shelling out the money to buy it separately now don't have to. Presented in its original 1.33:1 full screen ratio, with Dolby Surround (English, French, and Spanish) and optional English and Spanish subtitles.
"The Making of Anastasia" is an inviting 44-minute behind-the-scenes piece; those worried about the absence here of the two making-of bits from the previous DVD release can relax, as this feature is essentially those features re-edited, with new host segments from Bluth and Goldman. (Only the host segments featuring the late pop star Aaliyah are missing here.) The feature goes into great detail, even if it does hit too-familiar territory from time to time. (There's a lot of the old "gee, doing voice work is fun but hard" commentary here.)
A particularly odd feature is the "International Phonetic Alphabet Sing-along," which allows viewers to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet. The object of this alphabet is to help people learn another language without being hampered by differences in letter pronunciation. (Example: "okay" becomes "oukei.") First, we learn the alphabet, then we walk through two songs, "Journey To the Past" and "Once Upon a December," in various languages. The problem, however, is that we're never taught a complete song in any one language; this feature merely gives us a few lines in Brazilian Portuguese, then some in French, and Hebrew, and Thai, and so on. It therefore becomes pretty useless. Kids curious about the International Phonetic Alphabet (I'm sure a few are) will find this interesting for about five minutes. Kids curious to hear their favorite song in another language will watch this once, then ignore it. Grown-ups curious about either will wind up turning it off after about ninety seconds.
Better, if only by default, is the music video for Aaliyah's rendition of "Journey To the Past," complimented by a brief, rather pointless making-of, which is little more than footage of the singer in the recording studio edited with an interview of her talking about the movie and the song. (Despite the title, there is no footage of anyone actually making the video. Go figure.)
Finally, we also get three games for the kids: "Anya's Day Out" allows you to dress Anastasia up in various outfits; "Rasputin's Revenge" is a remote-centric game in which you catch the villain's body parts; and "Help Anya Remember" is a trivia contest about Anastasia's past. This, I suppose, is the "family fun" portion of the disc.
The fluff-piece extras I can forgive, considering that they intend to deliver the most complete "Anastasia" goodies available, and besides, the non-fluff stuff is so top notch that they more than make up for the dopier fare. But that distressingly poor game layout for the second disc's navigation is what is keeping this disc from achieving the highest possible rating. That said, the movie has never looked better, and I'm more than willing to accept a few bonus feature clunkers if it means everything else in the set will be this exceptional. "Anastasia" is one of the true greats of modern animation, and now it has a DVD presentation worthy of it. Highly Recommended.