Swim aside, Little Mermaid, Anastasia's coming through. She's riding locomotives, horses and Parisian high society with the grit of Annie Oakley and the wide, arched brows of Audrey Hepburn. Blessed with the no-nonsense voice of Meg Ryan (and the rich singing voice of Liz Callaway), Anastasia is a witty, streetwise orphan, tough enough to wrestle her arch enemy Rasputin to the ground, but gentle enough to dream of finding her true family. With a fare-thee-well to historical accuracy, Fox's entry in the animated musical field takes the fable of the survival of the youngest daughter of the murdered Czar Nicholas II, and delivers a rousing, romantic adventure film. Disney meets its match!

Director/producers Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (An American Tail, The Land Before Time) achieve a luscious visual splendor, with remarkable three-dimensional renditions of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and a bird's-eye view of Paris. Enlisting computer-assisted animation, these former Disney artists create their own special effects, such as a hugely realistic, dynamic runaway-train sequence, ending in a spectacular explosion. And since Anastasia is filmed in wide-screen Cinemascope (the first animated film to utilize this process since Sleeping Beauty in 1959), it comes closer to achieving an epic scale than most animated pictures.

But Anastasia works, ultimately, because it creates believable, engaging characters who grow through the course of the story. It starts in 1916, with an affecting scene between Anastasia and her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury). The older woman presents her beloved granddaughter with a small, gold music box that opens with a special engraved key. She hopes it will comfort Anastasia when she, Marie, returns to her home in Paris. Soon thereafter, a spurned Rasputin sells his soul to the devil for the power to destroy the Romanov royal family, and the Russian Revolution ensues. Dimitri, a kitchen boy in the palace, helps Anastasia and her grandmother escape execution, but only Marie arrives safely in Paris.

Ten years later, a young woman named Anya, whose only key to her past is the one she wears around her neck (which bears the inscription 'Together in Paris'), meets up with a couple of Russian con men out to collect the Dowager Empress' reward for finding her lost granddaughter, the Czarina Anastasia. Now adult, the craggily handsome Dimitri (John Cusack), with the help of the kindly, rotund former aristocrat Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer), tutors Anya to assume the role, convincing her that she just might be the vanished princess. Once in Paris, she must convince Sophie (lushly voiced by Bernadette Peters a la Zsa Zsa Gabor), Marie's first cousin, and then the intimidating Dowager Empress Marie herself.

In another larger-than-life (and in this case, larger-than-death) incarnation, Christopher Lloyd takes on the voice of Rasputin, Anastasia's demonically evil adversary, stuck in limbo until his wisecracking sidekick, Bartok (Hank Azaria), a cute albino bat, shows up with his missing weapon, a magic reliquary. Despite the fact that Rasputin is literally falling apart-a popped eyeball here, a dropped pair of lips there, even a head that sinks into his own chest cavity (which, through the miracle of animation, we see from the inside out)-his hatred empowers him to wage a final, visually stunning supernatural assault upon the last surviving Romanov.

Needless to say, all live happily ever after. This is a fairy tale above all else. Don't expect an objective view of the callous Czarist regime, or an insight into the cause of the Bolshevik revolt, or the results of the latest DNA tests that argue that the child Anastasia was buried with the rest of her family. Expect an imaginative musical with some lovely songs by Ragtime's Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, an all-star cast (Azaria's Bartok steals the show with his deadpan, Spanish-inflected delivery, but all the voices shine here), and more than a few surprises. Though it is clearly poised on a merchandising bonanza, Anastasia will delight young and old long after all the collectible music boxes wind down.

--Wendy Weinstein