Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don Bluth Month: "Hell with it, here's a Princess movie." Thoughts on "Anastasia"

As I said before, fans of Don Bluth who were captivated, as children, by "The Secret of N.I.M.H." and "The Land Before Time" were on their knees by 1997, hoping our hero would come through with the kind of movie we knew, deep down, that he was capable of. And then we saw the trailers for "Anastasia". After trolls and penguins and Thumbelina, maybe -just maybe- this would be Don Bluth's big comeback. The world at large would finally appreciate him.

It was a comeback, however mild, but it's hard to imagine it coming at a better/worse time.

Let me explain by taking a minute and setting the stage. In the wake of "The Lion King", every big Hollywood studio wanted their own animation department, whether they'd had one in the past or not. Which means that this was a damn fun time period to be a fan of hand-drawn animation. Some well-loved cult favorite features come from this time, and while they are all of varying quality, all of them appeared to have taken their influence more from Don Bluth than from Disney: "Ferngully", "Pagemaster", "Once Upon a Forest", "Little Nemo", and of course the beloved "Iron Giant". The Dreamworks animation studio came barreling out of the gate with "The Prince of Egypt" -- they had
the guy who MADE "The Lion King" on their side so they should have been unstoppable! ("Prince" and the other all-but-forgotten hand-drawn and "tradigital" [ugh] Dreamworks films are certainly worth a re-watch. Turns out there are only *five* of them, so t'is a story for another day.)

Meanwhile, a little studio in Emeryville, California was quietly working on some movies of their own that would, unwittingly, and for better or for worse, change the playing field forever.

So in other words, the market for animated films was actually overcrowded. Into this environment, around the same time I just entered college, entered "Anastasia". And I have to say I liked the movie when I first saw it but didn't think that much of it. It was okay; certainly a damn site better than "Hercules" or (shudder) "Space Jam".

Thing is, had I known at the time that this was going to be the third-to-last Don Bluth feature film for more than a decade... I probably would have treated it differently.

Upon rewatch, and with all this in mind, "Anastasia" is a strange ride. It's as if Fox asked Bluth to make them a movie that would directly compete with Disney and that was also, by the way, an adaptation of the previous film and play "Anastasia". Aside from these prerequisites, he could go to town.

And so now we have a movie that tells the fictionalized story of the lost princess Anastasia with big bombastic Broadway (read: Disney)-style musical numbers, cute little animals, Meg Ryan, and a happy ending that rides off giving double swear-fingers to your high school history teacher. And that also suggests to it's young primary demographic that the Russian Revolution happened because everyone just suddenly dropped everything and started attacking the Romanov family. Because some glowy green demons told them to. Because said shiny demons were sent by Rasputin. Who was apparently an evil Satan-worshiping zombie wizard thing. Because why the hell not? Screw you, historical accuracy and sane storytelling decisions, I do what I want! I'm Don Bluth b**ch!!!

(Something tells me Don Bluth and Quentin Tarantino would get along very nicely. Anyway...)

In print, this all looks ridiculous. It's that good old Bluthy weirdness applied to actual historical persons. And if you let that kind of thing bother you, this movie's going to be hard going. No offense to any and all actual people involved in these incidents in real life, I'm just here for the pretty animation.

And dear sweet lord, it is gorgeous. So this is what Bluth can do when handed a big, big budget. It's absolutely fantastic. The DVD I got was in anamorphic widescreen and so, so pretty.

But aside from the pretty visuals, there's not much that stays with me. The songs are pretty good, and the best ones are hideous earworms as usual. The songs suffer, however, from the annoying and distracting post-"Lion King" trend of "oh let's hire a name-voice for the speaking part and let the professional voice actor do the songs. Nobody will be able to tell!" Well, you really can tell. Additionally, the story is a little bland with no real good character or action moments and a whole lot of weird references to "Titanic" and, err, "Speed". This is also the first film where Don Bluth uses extensive CGI sequences and - yikes. WTF giant stone Pegasus?

But overall, "Anastasia" is pretty good and worth a rewatch. We'll see if the same can be said for Don Bluth's very last theatrical feature to date.

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Art of the Day!

Almost finished!

7.3.10 - In Progress

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