Anastasia (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Extras: Featurette and Documentary, Sing-Alongs, Interactive Puzzle, Theatrical Trailer

They say that when it rains, it pours and that is certainly the case with high-quality animation on DVD. After a serious drought where there were no high-profile animation releases (save for "A Bug’s Life" and "Antz") November is turning into animation month. First we had the arrival of the first animated Disney DVDs and next week will see the release of the hilarious "Southpark: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut." And we also have the DVD premiere of 20th Century Fox’s recent foray into big-budget animation "Anastasia."

As with the other animation titles, this is a crisp transfer of the film. However, unlike the Disney DVDs or "Southpark", Fox has gone all out and created an extras-laden DVD that offers something for everyone.

"Anastasia" is a retelling of the real-life story of the disappearance of the Grand Duchess of Russia. The film opens in 1916 as the Romanov family are celebrating 300 years of imperial rule. Here, we meet the young Duchess Anastasia and her Grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury). But, the party is interrupted by the evil mad monk Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his sidekick, Bartok the bat (Hank Azaria). Rasputin puts a curse on the Romanov’s and swears that they all shall die. Rasputin uses his dark powers to cause an uprising among the people and soon the Romanov’s palace is being stormed. During their escape, Anastasia gets separated from her grandmother as they are trying to board a train, and she falls to the tracks, unconscious.

We then jump ahead ten years. The entire Romanov family was killed that night, but no one knows what happened to Anastasia. We meet Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer). These two schemers are trying to find a girl that they can pass off as the lost Anastasia to her grandmother and collect a handsome reward. At the same time, a young girl named Anya (Meg Ryan) is leaving an orphanage to seek her fortune in the world. Anya meets Dimitri and due to her uncanny likeness to Anastasia, Dimitri becomes convinced that they can pass her off as the genuine article. So, the trio sets off for Paris.

This re-emegence of the girl who may be Anastasia resurrects Rasputin, who has been trapped in limbo. With the help of Bartok, Rasputin uses his powers to try and stop Anastasia. This culminates in a showdown in 1920’s Paris.

"Anastasia" represents 20th Century Fox’s first foray into big-time animation and they have succeeded. The style of the animation is reminiscent of the early Disney classics. Most of the people look realistic, with the exception of some exaggerated characters. Unlike most of the recent Disney offerings where all of the characters look like caricatures, some of the figures in "Anastasia" resemble animated photographs — they’re just that well drawn. Great pains were taken to ensure the realism of the locations in both St. Petersburg and Paris, and it shows. Director’s Don Bluth ("An American Tail", "The Secret of N.I.M.H.") and Gary Goldman (the upcoming "Titan A.E.") have combined their talents to make a wonderful animated experience.

As with most modern animated films (including "Southpark"!) "Anastasia" is a musical. The songs are very good, rivaling, and at times, surpassing, the recent Disney songs. The score by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens fit the tone of the film very well. The song "Once Upon A December" is the showstopper in the film and it won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. "Journey to the Past", another good song, was nominated for an Oscar. The combination of the animation talent and the musical talent on the film, along with the well-known cast, shows that Fox wasn’t messing around when they decided to try their hand at animation.

The Fox DVD of "Anastasia" offers a great transfer of the film and some nice extra features. The DVD offers the film in two formats. The <$PS,widescreen> format is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. There is also a full-frame version that is formatted at 1.48:1 (how often do you see the aspect ratio listed for a full-frame version?). The picture itself is incredibly clear. The colors leap off of the screen. The film looks best when the 3-D computer animation is combined with the more traditional animation. The clarity of the picture gives the scenes an unprecedented depth. The color balancing has been handled very well, as there is no over-saturation or bleeding of the colors.

The audio on "Anastasia" is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> surround track that sounds incredibly good. The mix makes full use of the surround sound system, surrounding the viewer with the sounds of trains, the ocean, and Bartok’s screams as he flies through limbo.

The DVD has several nice special features. There are two behind-the-scenes features. The first is entitled "Anastasia: A Magical Journey." This 20-minute plus documentary offers many looks at the making of the film. We see the animation process, the actors recording their lines, and the music and singing being recorded. This feature would be very educational for youngsters who want to know how animated films are made. There is also a 7-minute featurette, which contains much of the same footage as "A Magical Journey."

Two Karaoke-style sing-a-longs are also part of the release. The two songs are "Once Upon A December" and "Learn to Do It." The original theatrical trailer for "Anastasia" is included and it is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1, as well as a full-frame trailer for "Bartok the Magnificent", the recently released direct-to-video sequel. A unique special feature is the three interactive video jigsaw puzzles, which should keep the kids busy for at least an hour. There is one extra feature that I would’ve like to have seen that is not on the disc. As "Anastasia" is a fictionalized account of an event that really happened, it would have been nice if Fox had included a short documentary on the real story of "Anastasia." As many children will be watching this DVD, it would have been a nice educational addition if they could come away from it, knowing the true story. Fox could’ve easily done this and made it children-friendly by leaving out the graphic descriptions of the executions. Well, if you are a parent who will be watching this with a child, at least encourage them to research the true story. I guess I’ll get off of my soapbox now.

To put it simply, "Anastasia" is a true delight. The film offers breathtaking animation, a good story, and great music. The DVD offers the viewer a fantastic transfer of the movie, and many great features. This is a film that both young and old alike will enjoy and the DVD offers some extras aimed at several age groups. While "Anastasia" didn’t perform as well as some had predicted, I hope that Fox won’t be discouraged from trying again. Let’s hope that this film doesn’t end up getting lost like the real Anastasia.