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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 11/20/1997,


If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then the folks at Disney should feel royally complimented by Twentieth Century Fox's new animated feature about Tsar Nicholas II's youngest daughter. Anastasia has all the new-Disney trademarks: a romantic couple with attitude, cute animals, a villain who'll stop at nothing, the villain's wise-guy sidekick, opulent sets, big-name actors, and a full-scale musical score -- even big-name singers (Richard Marx and Donna Lewis, Aaliyah, Deana Carter) to provide those all-important alternative soundtrack versions of the hoped-for hits. Disney is looking to head off Anastasia's audience by keeping Hercules around and re-releasing The Little Mermaid -- but in a fall season that's already given us its share of turkeys, there should be room for any film as handsome and touching as this one.

The Disney resemblance is hardly accidental: long-time collaborators Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were Disney veterans before leaving the studio in 1979. But whereas Hercules, say, indulges freely in caricature, Anastasia's characters look and move more like real people, and we more often view them from what could be real camera positions. (Compare a Disney production number like "Be Our Guest," from Beauty and the Beast, with this film's "A Rumor in St. Petersburg," which conjures an actual Broadway production number.) And the use of Cinemascope makes Anastasia a set- rather than people-centered film.

The story, too, isn't Disney neat, though it takes considerable liberties with its historical material. The real Grand Duchess Anastasia (whose name means "resurrection") was taken to the Urals with the rest of her family in 1917, when she was 16; she (probably) died there with them the following year. In this version she's just eight at the time of the Russian Revolution; she flees the Winter Palace with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie, but they get separated at the train station. Ten years later, with no pre-Revolution memory, Anastasia leaves her orphanage to find out who she is, but she falls into the hands of a con man named Dimitri, who with his friend Vladimir is looking for an Anastasia candidate to take to the Dowager Empress in Paris so he can collect the king's ransom of rubles Marie has offered. Meanwhile, Rasputin, whose curse on the Romanovs precipitated the Revolution, has risen from a Dante-like Limbo to do away with the last surviving daughter.

The film's St. Petersburg is gorgeous (the tsar's Romanov-blue carriage resembles a huge Fabergé egg), but at times it looks strangely like onion-domed Moscow. And the plot -- never the strong point of Bluth films -- gets a little uncoordinated. Rasputin (an over-the-top Christopher Lloyd) is a one-dimensional villain lacking the sardonic wit of Scar or Hades; you could write him out of the story and it wouldn't lose much. Ditto Rasputin's sidekick, a Hispanic-accented albino bat named Bartok (Hank Azaria).

But when the film hits Paris, Bluth and Goldman hit their stride. The allusions whirl by like snowflakes: Josephine Baker, Freud, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Chevalier, Chanel, the Moulin Rouge, Flying Down to Rio, An American in Paris. Angela Lansbury brings class and a convincing Russian accent to the Dowager Empress. Kelsey Grammer as Vladimir and Bernadette Peters as the Dowager Empress's cousin Sophie provide affectionate if exaggerated support. And though Meg Ryan and John Cusack, as Anastasia and Dimitri, look and sound, well, Irish, they also look and sound like individuals. Besides, they make this Hollywood evergreen -- the pair who don't trust each other at first but eventually fall in love -- seem as fresh as Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade. They're particularly affecting when, on the boat to Paris, he tries to teach her to waltz and she winds up teaching him (a moment that's reprised in the film's finale). Anastasia has a darker but no less moving moment when with her grandmother she looks at a drawing she did as a child and remembers how her now-dead sister Olga made fun of it.

As for the soundtrack, "Journey to the Past" is the same self-fulfillment anthem that turns up in every Disney animation. But "A Rumor in St. Petersburg" puts a myriad of muzhiks on the move, and "Once upon a December," built on a music-box tune, is fairy-tale lovely -- like this movie, which tells Anastasia's story as it never was but should have been. At the Copley Place, the Fresh Pond, and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

-- Jeffrey Gantz