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'Anastasia': A not-so-imperial effort

™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.   

From Reviewer Carol Buckland

(CNN) -- "Anastasia" is a Disney-derivative production from the Fox Animation Studios. While it offers some strong on-screen values, it has a secondhand feel. It's also likely to send sticklers for historical accuracy screaming for the exits.

The film gets off to a visually engrossing start, portraying the final days of the imperial Russian family. Their enchanted (and decidedly elitist) world is swept away -- not by a communist-inspired revolution, but by a curse invoked by the mad monk, Rasputin. The youngest Romanov daughter, the "Princess" Anastasia, survives but can't remember who she is. The only clue to her past is a pendant engraved with a promise about Paris.

Dissolve forward 10 years. Anastasia (now Anya the amnesiac orphan) has grown into a suitably spunky heroine -- not unlike Ariel the mermaid or the Beast's beloved Belle -- who longs for an identity and a loving family.

Underwhelmed by the prospects of a career in a fish processing factory, she heads off for St. Petersburg. En route, she acquires a predictably cute little dog named Pooka. Once in St. Pete, Anya is conned into going to Paris by a pair of scam artists who plan to earn a big reward by persuading the dowager Empress Marie that she is Anastasia.

Rasputin, meanwhile, has been rotting in a creepy kind of netherworld. He's more or less dead. However, the realization that one of the accursed Romanovs escaped his evil clutches sort of ... um ... reanimates him.

Will Anya discover who she is? Will Dimitri (the cute young con artist) do the right thing? Will the dowager empress embrace her granddaughter? Will Rasputin get his? This is a cartoon for kids. What do you think??

The animation in "Anastasia" ranges from superficially stiff to sumptuously superb. There are two terrific action sequences -- a train wreck and a storm at sea, both orchestrated by Rasputin -- as well as a lovely scene in the abandoned imperial palace when Anya's memory tries to reassert itself. While Rasputin is effectively executed (he's reminiscent of several demons from "Fantasia"), much of the drawing for Anya and Dimitri is flat.

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Anastasia/Anya is perkily voiced by Meg Ryan. John Cusack brings an interesting edge to Dimitri, making him more appealing than the usual animated hero. Angela Lansbury adds vocal class to the proceedings in the role of the dowager empress.

As frequently happens in this type of production, the bad guys get most of the good lines. Christopher Lloyd has nasty fun with Rasputin, and Hank Azaria is excellent as his sidekick, a bat named Bartok. The songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are enjoyable in an unmemorable sort of way. Few folks are likely to be humming as they leave the theater.

"Anastasia" is OK entertainment. But it never reaches a level of emotional magic.

"Anastasia" runs 94 minutes. It's rated G. There are several scary sequences with Rasputin that may be too intense for sensitive little kids. The younger set may also find the story rather confusing to follow.


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