Throughout the 90s, Don Bluth was struggling to keep up in the animation scene. After his triumph in the 80s, he suffered a massive decline both commercially and critically in the 90s which resulted in some really bad animated films as well as the closure of his first studio, Sullivan Bluth. As his final film with that studio "The Pebble and the Penguin" was falling apart, Bluth and his director Gary Goldman decided to leave the studio and set up a brand new one with 20th Century Fox who had hoped to compete with Walt Disney Animation Studios who was still reigning supreme in the 90s. Their first project with the new studio came out in 1997 and was "Anastasia". After having seen Bluth's lackluster films that he made throughout the 90s, this film is such a breath of fresh air. It's simply a delight and not only is it his best film since "All Dogs Go To Heaven" as well as his best film he made of the 90s, but it's also easily one of the best films in his entire filmography. This film was simply a joy to sit through.
In 1926, a conman named Dimitri (John Cusack) and his friend Vlad (Kelsey Grammar) have been holding auditions to cast someone to play Princess Anastasia, who is believed to survive the Russian Revolution ten years prior, so they can try to collect a 10 million ruble reward offered by the Grand Duchess Marie (Angela Lansbury) who had lost her granddaughter during the revolution. One day the two come across a young woman named Anya (Meg Ryan) who bears a similar resemblance to the lost princess and believe that she is indeed the lost princess. Hoping to reunite her with her grandmother and get the reward, the three set off from Moscow to Paris while not knowing the evil sorcerer Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his bat sidekick Bartok (Hank Azaria) are trying to kill Anya to fulfill the curse put upon the Romanov family.
Throughout my viewing of this film, I was watching with a big smile. I simply loved this film and found it such a delight to watch. After a long string of disappointing films from Bluth throughout the decade, this film finally showed him getting back his grip as it has the magic of his films from the 80s that his films from the 90s just sorely lacked. One reason why it works so well is just how well the story works. During the 90s, a lot of animation studios took notice of the success that Walt Disney Animation Studios had with "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast". Unfortunately, they learned the wrong lesson and decided to rather copy their formula rather than try their own unique films. Throughout the 90s, we got a lot of really bad Disney knockoffs that were so desperately trying to be the next "Beauty and the Beast" and had no idea how to do it and most of them ended up being pretty terrible. This film is an exception. While it does have some of the formula that Disney had in their films like how the story is presented as a fairy tale and it has a lot of musical numbers, it rather has the charm of a true Don Bluth film from his heyday like "The Secret of NIMH" or "An American Tail". Bluth clearly learned from the mistakes he made on "Thumbelina" as he kept the film balanced with its dark and lighter moments, but also made the plot unpredictable and fun compared to "Thumbelina" where it was rather dull and frustrating. Not only that, it has very truly gripping moments and isn't afraid to get dark. One notable example is when Anya, Dimitri, and Vlad are on a boat to Paris and Rasputin puts a spell on Anya that has her sleepwalk and almost has her walk overboard the boat. It's a very gripping and scary scene and it works exceptionally well. I also really love a tense scene where the three are on a train headed to Paris and something goes wrong and they have to escape. Though the film isn't overly dark as well as there are a lot of sweet and soft tender moments that help keep the film afloat. I really love the scene where Anya leaves her old orphanage and encounters a dog she names Pooka and just quietly walks in the snow and dances. It's a beautiful scene and it's where the animation really gets to shine. Speaking of the animation, this is easily one of Bluth's best-looking films and probably has his best animation since "Rock-A-Doodle". The way that Moscow and Paris look in this film is simply gorgeous and the winter forests in Russia look absolutely pristine. This film has such amazing animated backgrounds and the character animation fits it perfectly. The only downside to this animation is sadly the computer animation which is not very good. There is one decent looking shot in the film where the characters are inserted into a CG background which is where Anya and Pooka run up the stairs of the old Russian palace, but most of the time the CG looks rather dated and imperfect and some of the camera movements are really clunky and imperfect. The worst offender is sadly the boat scene I brought up earlier which has some of the worst CG in the film as the way the camera moves around the boat doesn't feel smooth and the CG itself looks very dated. Compared to the ballroom shot from "Beauty and the Beast", it just doesn't work. Fortunately, the characters themselves work very well and I mostly give it to the voice actors. Anya is a fantastic protagonist as she has the curiosity about her past which she seemed to have forgotten while still having enough spunk and independence that she doesn't want to be pushed around. The chemistry she has with Dimitri is a lot of fun as I feel the way the two bicker at each other on the train doesn't feel annoying and forced with Meg Ryan's performance selling it. Bluth specifically wanted her in the part and I couldn't have picked a better actress to play her. I also like the Grand Duchess as well with Angela Lansbury giving her the voice of a woman who's been through great pain and is trying to move on. Dimitri and Vlad were just fun to watch conning people while not coming off as truly evil characters. Rasputin is a great villain if underutilized and Bartok makes for an enjoyable comedic secondary antagonist. It would also be a crime not to bring up the fantastic songs in this film. These are easily some of the best songs in any of Bluth's films and probably might be his best, up there with the songs from "An American Tail" and "You Can't Keep A Good Dog Down" from "All Dogs Go To Heaven". My favorites in the film are the mysterious lullaby "Once Upon A December" and the fun villain song "The Dark of the Night".
"Anastasia" is just simply a delight. The story is a lot of fun and filled with Don Bluth's trademark dark moments, the animation is gorgeous and beautiful, the characters are a lot of fun to watch, and the songs are beautiful and some of the best in all of his films. Out of all of the animated films that Don Bluth made during the 90s, this is the one you should most definitely watch. It's easily one of the best-animated films of the 90s as well. It's a journey to the past well worth taking.