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"Anastasia Blu-ray": It May Not Be a Disney Film, But It Ought to Be

Don Bluth’s 1997 film, Anastasia, finally comes to Blu-ray. It was originally released at a time when Disney was on top, a time known as the Disney Renaissance. Disney’s animated movies were amazingly successful both critically and financially, so it made sense for other companies to get into the animation business. Enter Don Bluth and Fox Animation. Bluth had left Disney back in the 80′s and actually ended up making numerous animated films that outgrossed Disney’s. So who better to give the Mouse House some real competition again?

This movie is based on a legend that one of the daughters of the last Russian Tsar, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, had escaped when the rest of the royal family was wiped out. (It was later proven in 2009, over a decade after the film was made, that she had in fact perished with them.) Movies have been made about the story before, but this one is an animated musical about a princess and the thief/con-man who tries to take advantage of her and then falls in love with her and gives up this great reward he’s been chasing because all that matters to him is this girl’s happiness.

Hmm. I just described Disney’s latest animated feature, Tangled, didn’t I?

Yes, it’s quite evident, even just by looking at the trailers, that Anastasia is not Don Bluth making his own film. It’s Don Bluth making a “Disney princess” film. Though he made it for Fox, it feels exactly like what one thinks when one thinks “Disney.”

Like Pocahontas, Anastasia too is based on historical figures. And like Pocahontas, Anastasia twists and distorts them until they really don’t resemble the historical figures they were based on. Not that that will stop a studio from marketing it as “based on an unbelievable true story.” (Just wait until I tell my history professor that the Bolshevik Revolution was the work of Rasputin casting a curse over Russia. Still, if they were going to pick a villain, I suppose Rasputin is as good as any.) While Pocahontas was aged to make her a viable love interest for John Smith, Anastasia has been de-aged because I guess having a princess movie about a 27-year-old wouldn’t have been as appealing to little girls. Of course, this movie really shouldn’t be judged on historical accuracy, because, let’s face it, we don’t want a history lesson, we want to be entertained.

Like every Disney-esque movie, execution is more important than plot. Most of the characters are likable, with the ironic exception of the two leads, Dimitri and Anastasia. Meg Ryan was just not the right choice to play Anastasia, as her voice is much too soft for a character who was written to be tough. Dimitri is likable at first, but he soon becomes annoyingly selfish. The characters are actually not so bad when you first meet them, but when they meet each other they begin what I’m assuming is supposed to be cute bickering. But it just comes across as two people being unnecessarily rude to each other, and isn’t cute in the least bit. Rasputin, on the other hand, is about as enjoyable as any other memorable Disney movie villain, and Christopher Lloyd absolutely steals every scene he’s in. Hank Azaria does a great job as Rasputin’s animal sidekick, Bartok, but it’s hard to stand out when every scene you’re in is opposite Christopher Lloyd (unless your name is Michael J. Fox).

At leastAnastasia does not disappoint with its music, and I kept thinking this film would probably work great as a Broadway show. All of the songs are enjoyable and I found myself humming them even days later. This soundtrack can easily go head to head with any of Disney’s. If not for Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s “Hellfire”, Anastasia‘s “In the Dark of the Night” would be my favorite villain song in any animated movie. Animation-wise, though, it’s a mixed bag. At times it seems as if the animators were sticking to the reference footage to the point that some movements almost look rotoscoped, which can look awkward. As for the CG work: Like Titan A.E. after it, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. While it does look good in places, when it doesn’t it completely throws you out of the movie. There is a music box, for example, that is central to the plot, and it easily could’ve been hand drawn, yet the animators apparently insisted on making it CG and it doesn’t mesh at all. For the most part though, while not perfect, the animation is well done and usually easy on the eyes.

The new Anastasia Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is a packed disc. While short on new material (only two kiddie games) there’s more than enough old material ported over. Everything from the two-disc “Family Fun Edition” is included, including the audio commentary by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, some sing-along features, a 30-minute how-to-draw featurette, two comprehensive making-ofs (clocking in at 44 and 22 minutes respectively), a music video with a behind the scenes look at the music video, and some trailers and TV spots. It also includes the complete Bartok the Magnificent direct-to-video movie, and it’s actually directed by Don Bluth! (My 5-year-old sister actually enjoys Bartok the Magnificent more than Anastasia. Go figure.) As for the transfer of Anastasia, it looks absolutely incredible in high definition and has no grain or scratches, though that’s to be expected considering the transfer was taken straight from the digital files. The sound is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix, and sounds utterly fantastic. The only complaint I can have against a release like this is that none of the special features are in HD, but then again, chances are HD masters don’t exist.

Anastasia is an enjoyable, well done film, though not without its flaws. Still, I’d proudly put it up right next to my copy of Tangled and Beauty and the Beast. Is the Blu-ray worth making an upgrade, though? Well, that depends. If you already have the Family Fun Edition on DVD, then all you’re really getting is a new transfer. If you’re happy with the old one, then there really isn’t any reason to upgrade, but if you simply must see this in HD (and it is beautiful), then by all means, get it. As for someone who’s a fan of Disney films who doesn’t own this yet, you really should. Anastasia may not be a Disney film, but it ought to be.

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