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ClassicFeature Film

Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s ‘Anastasia’ Is 20 Years Old Today

Twenty years ago on this day, 20th Century Fox released Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s Anastasia, better known today as the film that everyone mistakes for a Disney production.

Though it might seem a little hard to believe in 2017, the mid-to-late 1990s was the height of the hand-drawn animation boom in Hollywood. Following a string of Disney blockbusters (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King), every studio wanted a piece of the action and 2d feature animation studios started popping up all over.

Fox was one of those companies that wanted to compete, and they made a big investment in Bluth and Goldman, setting them up in 1994 with a state-of-the-art 66,000-square-foot studio in Phoenix, Arizona, and staffing the place with 300 artists. Here’s an in-house gag film that offers a peek inside the studio during the time of Anastasia’s production:

November 21, 1997 marked the wide theatrical release of Anastasia, the first feature from Fox Animation Studios and the ninth for the directing-producing team of Bluth and Goldman (Goldman co-directed for the first time, in addition to producing). The film performed well, earning around $140 million globally and becoming the highest-grossing Bluth film ever. It even spawned a direct-to-video spinoff, Bartok the Magnificent.

That same year, Turner Feature Animation also launched their first effort, Cats Don’t Dance. The following year, three more studios each debuted their hand-drawn efforts: Warner Bros.’ Quest for Camelot, Nickelodeon Movies’ The Rugrats Movie, and Dreamworks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt. But hand-drawn films proved no match for the groundbreaking success of Pixar’s early features from 1995-1999. The first two Toy Story films and A Bug’s Life each earned more than any of the aforementioned studios who were entering 2d filmmaking.

Then in 2001, Shrek and Monsters Inc. delivered the one-two punch out. The gargantuan success of those two films effectively ended 2d feature animation in the United Sates, leaving us with our current single-technique feature animation industry. (For the record, Fox Animation Studios closed in 2000, following the release of its second theatrical feature, Titan A.E.)

Looking at Anastasia today, it’s a time capsule from another era, a nostalgic look back at an exciting moment in animation history when all of Hollywood thought 2d animation was the future – except for a spunky upstart in Richmond, California that had a different vision for the future of theatrical animation in the United States.

Below are some early concepts of the character Anastasia, which appear to mostly be drawn by Bluth himself. They are part of the Don Bluth collection at Savannah College of Art and Design. A lot more pre-production artwork from the film can be seen at the SCAD Libraries website.

"Anastasia" concept artwork. "Anastasia" concept artwork. "Anastasia" concept artwork. "Anastasia" concept artwork. "Anastasia" concept artwork. "Anastasia" concept artwork. "Anastasia" concept artwork. "Anastasia" concept artwork.
  • I’m 49 years old. I remember the boom of the films that I’ve recently begun to term “hand-generated (HG)”. Never viewed this theatrically, but I read/viewed most related materials; I taped its “making-of” special. I was a nonDisney animation fan/activist who wanted/NEEDED “Anastasia” to rule the boxoffice sooo bad….it did!

  • This was the first Don Bluth film I watched as a kid. I still liked this film. It’s one of my favorite animated films and a great comeback for Bluth.

  • Derpy Pirate

    I see a lot of people bash this film for trying to copy Disney. While I agree it DOES have some obvious Disney-like elements in it, it also has unique elements as well.

    For instance, the heroine is hilariously snarky, and the handsome male lead is a con man! You don’t see those often in Disney films.

    • Polecat

      And the princess saves both herself *and* the prince at the end. And the mix of CGI and hand-drawn in the music box and Rasputin sequences was really pretty cutting-edge at the time, or so it seemed to my young eyes.

      Controversial opinion alert: I think Don Bluth has been quite underappreciated at times, and this is no exception.

    • Johnny Cash

      Don’s “D” (Box 137D) in his sig fits perfectly well if followed by these letters “i-s-n-e-y”

      • Polecat

        I noticed that too, but, eh, I don’t hold it against him.

        • Johnny Cash

          Yeah it’s all fine by me as well..I just wondered what would happen if Don stayed at disney’s would Jeffrey Katzenberg still be “converted to the faith”? I’ve watched the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty and Don was mentioned but only very brief I was hoping for more than just the word “polarized”.

          Update: I researched a bit so now I have more than just “polarized”

          • Polecat

            Interesting “what if” thoughts about Katzenberg. Now I want to see that documentary too. Thanks!

    • Inkan1969

      I remember Bluth getting royally slammed for his characterization of Thumbelina as a very helpless damsel who got pushed around by everyone around her. So “Anastasia” left me with the impression that Bluth was going out of his way to make her self reliant and brave.

  • Frank Coufal

    When I first saw Anastasia, I knew right from the start that it wasn’t a Disney movie, but from Bluth and 20th Century Fox. Looking back now, I believe Anastasia really did deserve its success. Another great treasure from Don Bluth himself. I’d give anything to see 2D animation come back to the big screen.

  • If only 2D HAD been the future of the business, ya? All we needed was a diversity of voices and not everyone trying to copy one monolithic company. Animated features are in a much healthier place today compared to 20 years ago. There’s more people making features, it’s not all trying to be the same thing, and the audience is way bigger.

  • Inkan1969

    This movie has also been turned into a hit Broadway musical.

    They’re even performing in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

    Say, whatever happened to Bluth and Goldman? The last movie they made was “Titan AE”. No movie since. I still think “The Secret of NIMH” is the best animated feature film ever made.

    • Valjean

      They’re still trying to get a Dragon’s Lair movie made. They had a crowdfunding campaign for it a while back, but I don’t know what came of it.

      • Tony

        The campaign raised enough money for a test reel to shop the project around.

      • Inkan1969

        Still trying after 20 years?

  • ParryL

    Titan AE needs some sort of retrospective.

  • RCooke

    Bleh. Yet another awful don bluth cartoon, with weak characters and limp storytelling. Even the rampant rotoscope is horrible.

  • Mark M

    Saw this in the theaters with my kids and niece and nephew so I remember it fondly. We were all entertained and enjoyed it. I miss 2D. I was thinking today how much we enjoyed ‘Little Mermaid’ if for no other reason than its incredibly bright colors. CGI has never quite gotten that bright primary cartoon colors for me. I miss seeing cartoons on the big screen.

    • Matthew

      And it was no coincidence that Disney brought back LITTLE MERMAID in theaters the exact same time ANASTASIA was out.

      My mom told me at the time: “I heard this makes POCAHONTAS look like a documentary.” But of course my five-year-old sister loved it and loved the songs, which she played on tape in the car to school a lot.

  • Robert Holmén

    20 years ago? It feels like 100.

    • Polecat

      I think I see what you did there. Nice one. ;)

  • Michael Howe

    If only they hadn’t given Christopher Lloyd another ‘Merlock’ like baddie to voice.

    Seriously, Rasputin and Merlock (from “Ducktales the Movie”) are almost the same characters, with how they yell and scream aloud at things. They seem to have some incredible green-colored power, yet they never just use it to destroy whatever is in their way, thus, they are incompetently able to do a simple task, and are easily destroyed by the lead character.

    • Matthew

      It seems like DUCKTALES THE MOVIE was a test run for certain ideas in both ALADDIN and ANASTASIA. They had the idea of a comedian playing a genie first, only there it was Rip Taylor. And you are right they had Christopher Lloyd playing a mystical villain first. But that was of course right before that he was Judge Doom in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. He sure played a lot of villains in kids’ movies.

  • Mister Twister

    People don’t give Don enough credit as a character designer.

    He did that all his life, and excelled at it.

    • Polecat

      I agree. I especially noticed how well these designs fit the era in which the movie was set, a period when the formal, well-bred “grande dame” Bell Epoque archetype of femininity was being replaced by the more youthful and spirited “gamine” popularized by authors like Colette.

      It’s subtle little things like this that make me appreciate this artwork all the more.

  • Johnny Cash

    off topic but still slightly relevant.. CB should (or already did) feature Fern Gully it’s 5 years older than Anastasia. It’s 25 years old now

    • Polecat

      Ooh! I would like to see that article too.

  • WOO, shout out to SCAD! I was able to see some of the original Bluth artwork while I was studying there; I think back in 2006-7 they were still working on digitizing pieces so that they could be put in the online digital library. It’s great to see so much stuff posted on there now. :)