NEW YORK — Step right up for the Battle of the Animators!
Hollywood isn't actually using that pitch, but it would fit the latest twist in the family-film business.
Twentieth Century Fox, convinced that animated features have a promising future, is brightening the fall season with "Anastasia," a lavishly produced fantasy-drama aimed at moviegoers of all ages.
Does this worry the folks at Walt Disney Pictures, where animation has been a cherished way of life - and a generous source of profits - for the past several decades? They're keeping a cool front, but it wouldn't be surprising if they were a tad nervous about such high-profile competition from such an energetic rival.
Indeed, it's just possible this is why Disney slated "The Little Mermaid," one of its own highest-grossing hits, for a return engagement on the very day "Anastasia" opened in limited release, Nov. 14. ("Anastasia" opens in full release today.)
To be fair, Disney has always made a habit of reissuing its major films every seven or eight years so new generations of youngsters can discover them. "The Little Mermaid" debuted in November 1989, which makes it ripe for this treatment. Still, it seems a bit too coincidental that the Mermaid is splashing back onto screens at almost the same minute when Anastasia's royal train makes its long-scheduled arrival.
Audiences are free to choose both attractions, of course, and many surely will. But then again, Disney has added a bit of extra pressure by limiting "Mermaid" to a 17-day release. Moviegoers may steer in her direction first, knowing she'll be gone after a couple of weekends - and if this reduces the early box-office take for "Anastasia," it could put a crimp in the new picture's entire career, given the importance of instant success in today's overcrowded marketplace.
The irony of all this is that both movies are splendid specimens of their honorable breed. Among recent Disney animations, "The Little Mermaid" is less entertaining than only "Toy Story" and "Beauty and the Beast," far surpassing such also-rans as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and the hyperactive "Hercules."
"Anastasia" is pleasing in different ways, taking on the difficult challenge of crafting an all-family entertainment from a basically grown-up story.
Inspired partly by historic events and partly by an earlier Hollywood picture, the tale begins in the tumultuous days of the Russian Revolution, when the czar and his household find themselves in mortal danger from the wicked Rasputin.
Most of the royal family perishes, but the eight-year-old princess manages to escape with her grandmother - only to be separated from her in the chaos, hustled off to a rural orphanage and raised in ignorance of her majestic origins.
Leaving the orphanage years later, she retains one token of her forgotten past: a locket with the words "Together in Paris" as its inscription. Hoping to recapture some knowledge of her former life, she heads for France with a new friend named Dimitri, who tells her Europe is buzzing with rumors that the former Russian princess may still be alive.
Our heroine doesn't realize she is that princess - and she also doesn't realize Dimitri is a con artist, searching for an Anastasia look-alike so he can collect a royal-sized reward for recovering the long-lost girl.
The plot thickens when the elderly grandmother - who alone can verify the real Anastasia's identity - tires of false pretenders to the role and refuses to meet any more candidates. It thickens more when Rasputin reappears, now a full-fledged demon still determined to end the young woman's life.
If "Anastasia" becomes a hit, one reason will be that the movie fits smoothly into movie-cartoon patterns established by Disney in the 1930s and followed by most animators ever since. Anastasia is a close cousin to all the genre's classic heroines, and the other key characters - from the evil villain to various comical sidekicks - have equally strong roots in previous pictures.
The most charming aspects of "Anastasia" have less to do with this pedigree, however, than with the sheer excellence of Fox's filmmaking. Many of the images are breathtakingly beautiful, and the music score (until the final credits) is based on sprightly show-tune conventions instead of the grating pop sounds that have marred some recent animations.
Also interesting is the story's unusual historical setting. Some have complained that the plot distorts Russian and European history - but who ever looked to a Hollywood cartoon for undistorted historical lessons?
"Anastasia" was directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, both onetime veterans of the Disney studio. The voices behind the cartoon characters include Meg Ryan as the heroine, John Cusack as her con-man boyfriend, Christopher Lloyd as Rasputin, and Angela Lansbury as the grandmother. Kudos to all.
* Rated G. Contains scenes of violence and supernatural menace that could be frightening for very young viewers.
The Original, Controversial 'Anastasia'
The first time moviegoers thrilled to "Anastasia" was in 1956, when Twentieth Century Fox unveiled its much-anticipated CinemaScope production of the tale. The picture soon made Hollywood history, ushering Ingrid Bergman to an Academy Award after seven years of absence from United States screens - and controversy among US audiences, who were sharply divided over her liaison with Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini and subsequent break with her American family.
One reason why fans were so angry with Bergman is that some of her most famous portrayals in the '40s had been of virtuous characters in prestigious pictures like "Casablanca" and "Gaslight," not to mention "Joan of Arc," where she played the title role. These made her offscreen imbroglios seem all the more inappropriate.
"Anastasia" was a first-rate comeback vehicle, allowing her to play an innocent woman caught in emotionally wrenching situations. Moviegoers were won over in droves, as her subsequent Oscar proved. She ended her marriage to Rossellini shortly afterward, and her admirers seemed eager to forget the past and start afresh.
The new "Anastasia" differs from its ancestor in many ways, starting with the obvious fact that it's animated. The most notable plot difference is that Rasputin does not appear in the 1956 movie, but becomes a major character - and a wildly fantastic one - in this year's edition. The new movie also has many songs and production numbers, unlike the earlier picture, where music played a mostly supporting role.
Also starring the suave Yul Brynner and the aristocratic Helen Hayes, the original "Anastasia" is available on cassette from Fox Video.