22 January 2011

A RUMOR IN ST. PETERSBURG

Kara Wild's donations to the Carry On Campaign were in service of a double feature of animated features from a critical point in the commercial history of American animation: two competing studios' attempts to out-Disney Disney when the Mouse House was just about to topple from the position it at held for over 60 years as the dominant force in the medium. First up, the earlier of the two.

It is a story well-known to the animation buff, how Don Bluth was once the greatest rising star in the Disney Animation Studios in 1970s until his dissatisfaction with the management at that company drove him away to set up his own competing studio. Strong in the belief that it was his vision that was truly heir to Walt Disney's own beliefs about the role of animation in popular entertainment, Bluth managed for a short time to give his old company its first serious competition ever in the mid-'80s, seemingly poised to take on the title of The New Walt, unclaimed since Disney's premature death in 1967, until his former employer got its head screwed back on and roared back to life in 1989, as The Little Mermaid wiped the floor with Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven, forever crushing Bluth's presence as a major player in American animation.

After that, Bluth was lost for a time, falling from distributor to distributor trying to find money to make Rock-A-Doodle, a flop that cost him his studio; for the next few years he and long-timer creative partner Gary Goldman cobbled together projects made on thin budgets with a fraction of the staff of their earlier work, on hectic schedules: Thumbelina and A Troll in Central Park were both released to chilly reviews and worse box-office in 1994, showing all the expected flaws of two projects cranked out in such quick succession, and the following year's The Pebble and the Penguin was no better.

The light at the end of this tunnel came when Bluth was hired by 20th Century Fox to kickstart their own animation studio, attempting to steal some more of Disney's thunder. Traditional animation was big business in the mid-'90s: over a five-year span, Disney had released four movies which all set new box-office records for the artform, and was starting to look like a juggernaut. Who better to combat Disney than one of Disney's lost sons, went the reasoning, and thus it was that Bluth was given resources the likes of which he hadn't had since breaking off with executive producer Steven Spielberg a decade earlier. A beaten-down Bluth no longer fought the paradigm that the Disney Renaissance had carved into stone, and so his first project with Fox had all the Disney trimmings: a lost princess, a magical villain, Broadway-style song and dance numbers, a love story, and a hypnotically inappropriate connection to reality. This was Anastasia, the latest telling of the oft-told tale of a young woman posing as the long-lost Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last imperial ruler of Russia (it was 20th Century's Fox's own second version of the story, though 1956's Anastasia has little to do with 1997's).

Though nobody could have known it at the time, 1995 marked the end of Disney's megalithic dominance, and ultimately of the prominence of the decades-old form of cel-style animation itself. 1995's Pocahontas was the first stumble for the old masters, followed by a quick succession of movies that underperformed commercially and were met with unenthusiastically positive reviews of the "Well, this is okay, but what happened to The Lion King?" variety. Thus, when Anastasia was released in November, 1997, it was accompanied by the feeling that maybe the time had come to give somebody else a try at this animation thing. The film was accordingly met with mostly solid reviews and the best box-office returns of Bluth's career, and seemed like a good start for Fox Animation Studios and a return to the salad days for the director - directors, I should say, for by this point Bluth and Goldman were receiving equal credit on all their films. A mere three years later, Titan A.E. killed both of these dreams, but now is not the time for that; now, let us sit with Bluth and Goldman in the full glow of their last triumph.

As I mentioned, Anastasia is Bluth's most overt attempt to pull a Disney, right down to the structure. There's a narrated prologue in which Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Angela Lansbury) recounts the fall of the Russian Empire to the Bolsheviks, introducing all of the characters; then the title appears as the camera glides through the sky in "present day" (1926) St. Petersburg, where a big musical number tells us all we need to know about the state of the plot, after which we're introduced to Anya (Meg Ryan), an 18-year-old living in an orphanage with no memory going back far enough to reveal what we already know: she is Anastasia, last of the Romanovs. Cue the Yearning Song.

Sometimes it's obvious and sometimes it's not how much the opening 20 minutes of Anastasia owe to Disney's Beauty and the Beast; I'd say it owes even more to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though given the lead time of animation, I'd it's quite impossible that the 1996 film could have influenced Bluth and Goldman in anything but incidentals. But the point here is not to accuse anyone of being unimaginative, but to simply point out that Anastasia is basically a Disney movie - one with a darker villain than Disney would have been comfortable with, one with a specific historical context largely unknown in Disney, and one with more wall-to-wall celebrity voices than Disney had used up to that point, but it wouldn't take much to convince somebody that this was Disney.

Which may be a disappointment to those of us waiting with baited breath for The Secret of NIMH reborn, but it's not really such a bad thing. Disney got where it did in the mid-'90s by being absolutely fantastic, after all. Anastasia is not absolutely fantastic, but it's more than good enough. In fact, the movie's greatest single sin might be the unconscionable hatchet job it makes of history, arguably a worse case of Disneyfication than anything Disney ever perpetrated (and I am not forgetting Pocahontas). A lot of the changes made are invisibly small: Maria Feodorovna lived in Denmark, not France, after the revolution, which occurred in 1917, not 1916, when Anastasia was 15, not 8 (this last is not of course a small change, but a forgivable one necessitated by the Princess Film formula which the filmmakers were so eagerly adopting). Some of the changes are insane: here, the Revolution was caused because the mad monk Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) was in a huff that the Romanovs had dissed him socially, and so he used his contract with Satan to stir up the peasants, before dying in the Revolution and brooding in Limbo until his curse that all the Romanovs must die could be fulfilled. It's also kind of perverse to open the main plot of the film with a big-ass musical number in which all of the comrades of Leningrad "St. Petersburg" could sing and dance about how much they had to keep secrets from the Soviet government - though look for the words "Soviet" or "Communist" in Anastasia and you'll look in vain.

And while all that is true, I'm somehow inclined to overlook it; or at least to box it up in a handy "yes, but". Yes, but the movie is first and foremost a fairy tale about a princess, and frankly its connection to real world events is so tenuous that it really doesn't even register as being factually inspired. Besides, I have a hard time imagining that most people wouldn't be able to figure out at a fairly young age that most of Anastasia is what was called, in an age when genres were a bit different, "historical romance". Really, the only unchecked lie in the whole movie is that Anastasia Nikolaevna lived past 1918, and that's not really the kind of ahistorical sin that matters: the whole "Anastasia lost and found" legend is the Early 20th Century Studies version of following the sexual travails of Snooki and JWoww.

So yes, the movie: a perfectly serviceable and charming story with an ending you can predict from all the way at the first scene. The con-men Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) will reunite Anastasia with the Dowager Empress, but not before Dimitri falls in love and discovers that she's the actual, for-real Anastasia, and not an idiot fraud. We attend to some stories for the tale, and some for the telling, and in this case it's Bluth and company's skill as artists, as well as some of the better celebrity voice casting in an animated movie of the 1990s, that give Anastasia its merit.

Admittedly, the animation is not as great as it could be: the animation team was not as experienced as in Bluth's best films, to say nothing of Disney's work at the same time, but it's not at all hard to look at. While clearly trying to remind people of Disney - Anastasia's eyes are right out of the post-Ariel character model so popular at that studio - most of the character design has an angular quality uncommon in American animation in those days, something just personal enough that you can tell there's a difference. I might have very little use for Dimitri's design in particular (he's kind of scrunchy and the animators have a hell of a time communicating emotion with his face), but at least he's not the exact same dully handsome male lead present in just about every Disney film of the Renaissance years. There are other flaws: Anastasia pre- and post- being made a pretty lady (signified by a dress just different enough from the one Ariel first wears as a human in The Little Mermaid that you can't accuse them of plagiarism) has a noticeably different facial structure, and much of the character movement suffers from a problem common to Bluth films, where the acting is just too broad, as though everyone was in a silent film.

That's all offset by the pleasing colors, the ambitious and surprisingly successful use of CGI effects - it took Disney years to perfect that - and some of the more imaginative moments, like the Parisian musical number in which the backgrounds are inspired by different styles of French art. Styles 30 years out-of-date, but that's a nitpick.Anastasia really looks good: a nice chaser for people who know and love Disney but want something just different enough that it's not uncomfortable. That mostly describes everything else about the movie, save for the Bluthian addition of some genuine darkness (Rasputin is a rotting corpse for most of the movie, enough so that in this day and age, Anastasia would undoubtedly be slapped with a "PG" rating).

It's a light entertainment, but still fully entertaining. The songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (better known for their stage musicals Once on This Island and Ragtime) are pretty good for a late-'90s original movie musical: I especially enjoy the energy of the aforementioned Yearning Song "Journey to the Past" (itself a somewhat unconventional version of the trope, in that the heroine is active, rather than passive), as well as the aforementioned townspeople's exposition song "A Rumor in St. Petersburg", while the leitmotif "Once Upon a December" is a surprisingly moving minor-key ballad that provides one of the most visually beautiful scenes in the film. The other songs are a bit spotty: in particularly, the villain song "In the Dark of the Night" sounds like someone's wholly inept attempt to copy Jim Steinman.

The script is amusing and reasonably clean; it would have undoubtedly worked better with the whole magical villain element dropped, which would have among other things saved the film from a climax that sputters to life rather arbitrarily. The performances are, perhaps surprisingly, mostly good, if a little distracting: while John Cusack is better than I tend to think he should be in the role of a jerk-ass hero, he's always plainly John Cusack, a fate that also befalls Grammer and Lloyd (though not Ryan, perhaps because she is better-identified by her face than her voice). It's not an ambitious film, but one that simply wanted to compete successfully in a rough marketplace, and Bluth cared enough about his craft to make sure that it would do so with dignity and beauty. Thirteen years after I saw it for the first and only time, I was shocked by how much of the film I remembered, and not without enthusiasm; a clearer sign that it's not as shallow as it might seem, I cannot imagine.

11 comments:

Cameron said...

I frickin. Love. This movie. I am going over to Netflix Instant right here and now to watch it.

Cameron said...

Also, for what it's worth, I've always thought that Dimitri was way hotter than any of the Disney Princes.

The.Watcher said...

All of those historical inaccuracies were particularly amusing to me, especially the Evil-Rasputin part (Hellboy also copied this concept) because I am from St. Petersburg myself. Or Leningrad, as it was then called. Still, I enjoyed it, nothing like watching a Russian tale told through the eyes of Yanks.

Ryan said...

I was wondering when you;d get around to this, Tim. Nicely done. This is a nice yin to the yang of the Nostalgia Chick's negative review.

Going out on a limb for a second, I'm guessing the next essay Ms. Wild requested had something to do with a twerpy retelling/reinterpretation/shark jumping of the Arthurian legend.

K Wild said...

Thank you, Tim, that was great. You touched upon a lot of issues I have with the film -- historical inaccuracies, Rasputin's awkward fit into a classic romance movie, somewhat stiff character animation, etc. (Another historical inaccuracy: while Empress Alexandra had a first cousin named Sophie (Queen of Greece), Dowager Empress Marie never did.)

Despite this movie's imperfections, I still drag it out of my collection every 1-2 months. There's something about it that makes it sweeter and more likable than half of the Disney Second Golden Age classics (particularly from Pocahontas onward).

Ryan: The second movie I requested has to do with a legend of sorts, but not the Arthurian legend.

Ryan said...

K Wild: Oh, thank goodness for that. I totally forgot about The Prince of Egypt. Silly me. I jumped to the conclusion that Tim was going to rag on Quest for Camelot, a film that, as I recall, is rife with all the criticisms he has of modern animated films.

Vianney said...

Funny that, I actually found the CGI quite flawed in that movie, not really in its own right but because of how much it distracted me thus juxtaposed next to the cel stuff. All the vehicles + the climax horse, if i recall, were CGI and really showed it. I was staying away from CGI movies at the time, and I believe Anastasia made sure I wouldn't give Pixar a chance for another couple years.

Other than that, it was perfectly enjoyable if functional, and had some nice sweet souvenir-making moments...

K Wild said...

Ryan -- I'd never seen Quest for Camelot, but after you mentioned it, I decided to view about 10 minutes on YouTube. It looks hideous. Flat backgrounds, bad songs, clunky animation. WB was probably embarrassed to put it out, especially when you compare it to the Iron Giant.

Daniel Silberberg said...

"one with a darker villain than Disney would have been comfortable with"

Seriously? I mean, Rasputin is gross and nasty and all, but he's basically a comical baddie. Frollo, on the other hand, coming from Disney a year earlier, is a stone cold motherfucker. A tortured, twisted shadow of a man with iron resolve forged out of fear. He's the only Disney villain I can recall who doesn't seem to enjoy being evil. He's evil because he can't help it. He's the menace and repulsion of every molesting priest. His performance in Hellfire gives me chills every time I think of it. A much darker take on damnation than Rasputin could come close too, with his chubby insect backup singers.

You know, I've never been a huge fan of Hunchback (due in large part to Costanza Gargoyle), but I have to credit it with giving me a clearer understanding of pure Catholic terror than any other film. All those statues staring down in judgement over you... shit.

Daniel Silberberg said...

@ Ryan: Oh man, I'd forgotten Quest for Camelot was a thing that existed. I'd love to see Tim tear that one apart.

God dammit, the farting ogre. *shakes head*

bnb45 said...

Just stumbled on this review. I love hearing the backstory of how things are made, so this was really interesting to read. Historical inaccuracies aside, I keep coming back to this movie. I am in my 30s but I watch it often. The newer (in '97) CGI blended with the animation made the movie gorgeous. The voice actors really add their personalities to their characters and overall, it is a compelling movie.

I don't believe they had found Anastasia's bones at the time of the movie's release, so I can forgive them that. It is interesting that they used a real life person, Rasputin, as a baddie. Though I do chuckle that they blamed the revolution on him :). I do fast forward his scenes in hell(purgatory?) because its creepy and weird and unnecessary. Plus the song is strange and doesn't seem to fit the rest of the score.

The songs are beautiful, I liked all the "cameos" in the Paris number, and I did like that even skewed, it does bring up an interesting historical time period to children. Post-revolution Russia in the early 1900s? Not a usual place to begin a kids' story, but it works.

I love it.