Handful of Hope, The Other Hand Free

In 1997, Don Bluth with Fox Animation released Anastasia, a ‘kid-friendly’ narrative of Russia’s problematic history.  The animated film offers limited information on actual Russian history, but it’s value as an historical document cannot be ignored.  The context in which the film was released, the audience to whom it was intended, and its unintentional symbolism endow Anastasia with an underappreciated significance.

The 1990s was a war-zone for animation studios – albeit a brightly-colored and musical one.  In the realm of feature-length animation, Disney dominated. In the 1979, Don Bluth and a handful of separatists broke away from Disney studios over a difference of opinion. Up to the mid-90s, Bluth put up an impressive – and often painful – fight against the Mouse.  Hits and misses constituted his early work, but his career seemed to stabilize once he partnered with Steven Spielberg, notably resulting in An American Tail and Land Before Time series.  It looked like Disney finally had a competitive rival.

Then the honeymoon ended.  Spielberg and Bluth parted ways, and Bluth started to spiral.  This is when Fox Animation reached out. 20th Century Fox had formed their animation studio in 1994, and needed talent to compete.  This need became absolute in 1995 as Pixar released the first major 3D animation, Toy Story. In 1997, they found pay dirt with Anastasia.

Anastasia played to the first generation of Americans after the Cold War.  Clearly, a children’s movie isn’t going to get into the nuances of Russian “democratization”.  Still, it seems to fill in the gap between children (including myself) and a 45-year era of tension and mistrust that we had missed.  Between Anastasia and An American Tail, Russia at some point was a fantastic, almost “fairy-tale” (We’ll come back to that!) place that went crazy. 

In Anastasia, demons summoned by a vengeful false-prophet sowed the seeds of unrest that led to the death of the Romanovs (and, of course, the unclear ‘revolution’). American Tail used cats.  Everybody who was in Russia back then was desperately poor and implicitly dishonest, and all the good ones wanted to leave.  Neither story made clear how it worked out for the Russian people – which I guess is sort of fitting.

Anastasia was also unique; she was an actual princess.  The mystery was alive, and the film alludes to the deceptive attempts to claim that Romanov line in the real world. 

“It’s me, Anastasia”

In an existence rich in fantasy princesses and poor in those corporeal, it was easy to paint the Romanov line as an idyllic, noble kingdom.  Secret police and absolutism have no room in this story.  This was going to be a story of hope, and the come back that Don Bluth needed.

Except, it wasn’t.  Unlike Disney, neither Bluth nor anyone else at Fox Animation could adapt to Pixar and (perhaps ‘the treacherous’, but I’ll leave that to your opinion) Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks and the new wave of 3D animation.  Fox Animation shut down after it flopped on Titan AE. Fox lost millions of dollars. Don Bluth never produced another movie.  DNA has confirmed that Anastasia died with her family and was buried with her brother Alexei. 

With some objectivity and a healthy amount of hindsight, how realistic was all this hope?  Do we really think the USSR would have let a credible Anastasia live?  Even if she did, would she not live in hiding?  Was it reasonable for Bluth to hope 2D animation would survive? Bottom line: 2D animation is too expensive to compete with the quality and quantity of 3D animated films.  His animation was excellent. He had the drive to hold his own against Disney.  But Disney could afford to invest in 3D animation, and they were diversified enough to weather a shift in the industry. 

The end of one era always begins another.  Though his career as a producer is over, Bluth has kept busy since 2000.  He works with Ubisoft in video game animation, moon-lights as a story-board artist, and teaches aspiring animators.  Further, he apparently hasn’t given up the original dream; a crowd-funding campaign for an animated Dragon’s Lair (based on his video-game series) closed at $731,000 in mid-2016.  Even his relationship with Disney has cooled over the last 40 years.  In 2018 he went to Disney to meet with director Steve Anderson, eat lunch, and work on “a few very important things”. Even Anastasia seems to have found a family; when Disney bought Fox (in DECEMBER of 2017), Anastasia officially became a Disney princess.

Blogger and animator Lavelle Lee joins Don Bluth (pictured) at Roy E. Disney Animation Building

Instead of competition and mistrust, these veterans of animation are looking to achieve a cooperative success.

Another case of unintentional symbolism?

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2 thoughts on “Handful of Hope, The Other Hand Free”

  1. Ah, Anastasia. Despite leaving Disney, Don Bluth seems to have agreed with their use of historical subjects that in no way is displayed as they were historical. Though, by no means is that unique to this short lived era of the animation wars.

    I’ve actually seen Titan A.E. If I recall correctly, it was directly pitted against Treasure Planet, both of which have a similar protagonist though different stories. I haven’t seen Treasure Planet, or if I have, then I don’t remember much of it. But both seemed to have been ignored for whatever reason. Have you seen either of them? If you have, why do you think those films ended up ignored?

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    1. I have not, actually. And, honestly, I think it might boil down to the fact that CGI was taking off. It’s reasonable enough to produce a movie set in the past in an “older” format, but it seems like a misstep to produce a movie about space things and *not* use CGI. It seems especially short-sighted to only use partial CG effects (the crazy bright laser-lights that can also be found in Atlantis and Pokemon 2000). CGI was an expensive investment, and could only really generate a return by making efficient use of each animated sprite (creating is expensive, animating not quite as much) and making enough films to pay off the initial investment. Disney was able to do both of these things because of its size and scope. Also, every film that Disney released provided free advertising.

      In a rich, round voice
      “Coming to theatres this Fall…”

      There would’ve been in general less pressure on any individual film to pay out, AND each film supported each other across mediums.

      Liked by 1 person

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