Animated. Voices of: Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst. Written by Eric Tuchman. Directed by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman. Rated G.

"Anastasia", a full-length animated feature based (loosely) on the historical circumstances surrounding the return of a presumed-dead Russian princess, is the single finest challenger to the exalted Disney throne. Don Bluth, who has faltered with such forgettable fare as "The Pebble and the Penguin" and "All Dogs Go to Heaven", has hit pay dirt with this charming film. So worried was the big "D" over impact of "Anastasia" that it re-released the 8 year old "The Little Mermaid" to counter its presence. And worried they should be. "Anastasia" is a wonderful film, thanks largely to its ability to mimic the winning formula of Disney’s own classics.

The Romanovs ruled Russian for over 300 years before the "mad monk" Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) predicted the bloody massacre of Czar Nicholas II and his family during the Russian Revolution in February 1917. The only family members to escape were the Czar’s mother, the Grand Duchess Marie (Angela Lansbury), and his youngest daughter, Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst). Ten years later word begins to spread in St. Petersburg that Anastasia has been found and will be reunited with her royal grandma in Paris. Little do the Russians realize that the return of their princess is a hoax perpetrated by con men Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer).

During their casting for Anastasia, they run across a young woman named Anya (Meg Ryan) who is just what they are looking for. Anya doesn’t have any memory of her childhood, so it is easy for them to convince her that she at least could be the heir to the Russian throne. They train her in royal history on the way to Paris in hopes of convincing Marie that Anya is Anastasia and thereby securing the reward she has offered for the return of her granddaughter. The only flies in the ointment are a returned-from-the-dead Rasputin and the mounting fear Dimitri holds that Anya is actually the princess he purports her to be. He holds this fear because, if true, it means he will soon lose the girl he has come to love.

"Anastasia" succeeds, where so many non-Disney cartoons haven’t, because of two key reasons. The first is that the film doesn’t talk down to kids; it’s funny and romantic without being silly or saccharine. The second is that its songs are well-crafted and worth listening to more than once. They’ll give those from "Hercules" a run for their money come Oscar time. Special mention should also be given to Hank Azaria, whose albino bat Bartok aids Rasputin in his dastardly deeds. As voice by Azaria, Bartok is nothing short of hilarious. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the film that with her great spunk and beauty, Anastasia is the most fetching animated movie heroine ever.

If there was one quibble I would have with the film, however, it would have to be the choppiness of the animation. Although the film features some stunning, spellbinding sequences and clever use of computer animation, movement on screen isn’t as smooth as you would hope to find in a film of this caliber. With that caveat aired, I feel comfortable in giving "Anastasia" my highest recommendation. Kids and adults alike will be enthralled by this masterpiece.

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