Don Bluth’s impassioned torch for animation has never garnered much respect on DVD, except for 20th Century Fox’s “Titan A.E.” DVD release, which included an audio commentary and deleted scenes for his use. It’s not enough that “The Land Before Time”, “An American Tail” and other directorial ventures of his have merely made it to DVD, without any input from him. Now there’s a slight improvement, with Fox’s new two-disc release of “Anastasia”, which features another Don Bluth/Gary Goldman commentary, along with extensive featurettes, and “Bartok the Magnificent” on the second disc, which is far better than Disney’s own direct-to-video output, up to “Bambi II.”
“Anastasia” has the usual pitfalls in a screenplay heavily involving a guy and a girl, Dimitri (voice of John Cusack), a con man working alongside the rotund Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer), and Anya (Meg Ryan), who emerges from an orphanage, eschewing the way toward working at the fish market for possibly finding out who she is (amnesia, you know) and what the locket around her neck means. Little Orphan Annie she isn’t, though Andrea Martin has a brief, delightfully throaty moment as Phlegmenkoff, the head of the orphanage, more mild than Miss Hannigan. When Anya meets Dimitri with the intent of securing passage to Paris, as her locket says “Together in Paris”, Dimitri sees her as the one, the girl who can look like the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who went missing after the evil monk Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd, and the stunning singing voice of Jim Cummings) destroyed the Romanov empire, with all but two of the family dead from the attack. In Paris, Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury) is seeing girls in the hopes that one of them might be her. With a reward of ten million rubles, it’s worth the con for Dimitri and Vladimir.
However, Vladimir—with Kelsey Grammer’s Russian-accented voice, who also sings with deep-seated feeling—doesn’t look like he’s in this for the money. As a former member of the Czar’s royal court, it looks like he sees the chance to reach the Dowager Empress (and, admittedly, his beloved Sophie (Bernadette Peters), Marie’s lady-in-waiting), and at least for a moment, relive those glory days. In the “Rumor in St. Petersburg” number, Vladimir harmonizes with Dimitri on getting rich and getting out of Russia, but Vladimir looks like he can’t only want money. Getting back to Dimitri and Anya, it’s the typical boy-meets-girl-boy-annoys-girl-boy-and-girl-snipe-at-each-other-as-a-disguise-for-being-fond-of-each-other relationship. Once on the ship that’ll get them to Paris, Anya, in a new light blue dress, shocks Dimitri into silence. It’s that moment, predictably, where he’s officially taken by her.
Bluth, Goldman, and songwriting team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns manage to soar above that many times over, in a few sequences that make one forget about that ultimately predictable romance (with Anya slowly recovering pieces of her memory at just the right moments), right up to the con man giving up his pursuit of big money. First, Bluth, Goldman and various CG and hand-drawn animators, along with background artists I’m sure, marry computer animation and hand-drawn animation in a way that the CGI and pencil strokes exist side-by-side. At the beginning, Marie picks up a computer-animated stout, jeweled egg-shaped music box and places it in her handbag and later, during the train sequence which finds Rasputin’s nasty green minions wreaking havoc, it’s a whirlwind of impressive CGI effects. Rasputin is one of the more noteworthy animated villains. He’s single-minded in his quest, having sold his soul in order to continue trying to strike the Romanov name dead, meaning Anya. Plus, in purgatory, where the comical Bartok (Hank Azaria, with a new voice added to the hundreds he’s done) is reunited with his master, Rasputin is falling apart, eyeball popping out, his mouth sliding down his beard. Christopher Lloyd makes him memorable by performing nearly melodramatically, with murderous intonations that unsettlingly mean business. Jim Cummings, who should be hailed as a new rock-solid God, takes over for Lloyd in the big centerpiece song, “In the Dark of the Night” where he sounds exactly as Lloyd would if he could sing.
“Bartok the Magnificent” was made in response to what I can only assume was a huge push for more Bartok, either by fans or by Fox in the hopes of at least making some money with what had only done so-so. Or maybe it was an idea long gestating for Bluth during production from 1995-97. Either way, this spin-off is actually very enjoyable and skips away from what usually befalls movies centered on popular comic relief or supporting characters. Where those movies give full attention to that character for 90 minutes as opposed to the 20 minutes or so they got in the original movie, “Bartok” features a slew of new supporting characters, including Kelsey Grammer voicing Zozi, Bartok’s articulate bear sidekick in his traveling show. And where Bartok was obviously used as a way to reduce some of the dramatic tension from what was likely perceived as unpleasant moments for kids watching “Anastasia”, Azaria tones down his performance, being funny here and there, but making the voice more and more worn out from Bartok’s adventure in trying to rescue Prince Ivan (voice of Phillip Van D**e), who was snatched from the palace. Naturally, suspicions are easily laid on Ludmilla (Catherine O’Hara), who is frustrated with the prince’s insistence on being kind to commoners. There’s also time allowed for friendly banter between Bartok and Zozi, including an obligatory song Zozi sings to try to build Bartok up to the task of finding the prince. Andrea Martin gets a bigger role as Baba Yaga, a witch who might have taken Ivan, and clearly relishes every word she speaks. Bluth and Goldman co-directed again and they don’t let the animation sink to Disney’s hopefully former direct-to-video standards, employing nearly the same amount of CGI, especially with The Skull (Tim Curry), the gatekeeper of Baba Yaga’s property, and backgrounds which exhibit the same artistry as “Anastasia.” It joins “Anastasia” as one of the most successful animated double features, if you decide to do that on this DVD set.
Having owned the original “Anastasia” disc which was disappointing with a featurette not saying a whole lot in the way of production, this new set is cause for low-key excitement. Finally, Bluth and Goldman have the audio commentary they’ve richly deserved for this movie and as animators, they lean toward how the scenes were animated, the history of the production and what they would have done differently. There’s a minute spent on Kirsten Dunst when the young Anastasia appears, as well as how one of the songs were influenced by a song from “The Sound of Music”, and a whole lot on what took a long time to make. It’s one reason to forgive the previous DVD release of “Anastasia.” The featurettes on disc two, which you can either slog through the CG palace for or use the menu, are the other reason. Completely expanded from what there was before, there are storyboards, photographs and footage from a trip to Russia led by Goldman, clips of the actors performing their roles, music being recorded in the studio, animators’ working and working and working, and insightful interviews both archival and new. And on disc one, Bluth is a guide on how to draw Anastasia, Dimitri, Rasputin, and Bartok, perfect tutorials as he also talks about what pencils he uses and the best eraser for animation. There are also two games on the second disc, easy to play, along with a tour of the grand ballroom of the palace where, if you choose some of the objects, a can’t-be-bothered female narrator explains their historical significance with a clipped L.A. attitude, as if she has an audition to get to and really doesn’t want to do this.
This is the most any studio has done for Bluth, and that’s admirable. To watch the process of making an animated feature film, to listen to memories of the experience, that all makes this set worthwhile. If you’ve got the original DVD, sell it, add cash to what you got from that sale, and get this.