By Leah Rozen
November 24, 1997 12:00 PM

Voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Angela Lansbury

Why is it that the best roles for women in movies lately are all in cartoons? Take the title role in Anastasia, the enjoyable, first full-length animated feature from 20th Century Fox. This Anastasia is honorable, feisty and brave, sings and dances, outwits one of history’s nastiest villains, reduces the hero to making goo-goo eyes, boasts a waist as slender as a vanilla bean and looks absolutely fabulous in Chanel. What wouldn’t Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer do for such a part?

Anastasia spins an improbable, sugarcoated tale of what might have happened to the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas if she had escaped after her pop was overthrown by the Bolsheviks and the royal family killed in 1918. Neither the Bolsheviks nor the Communists are mentioned here, of course; too complicated and confusing for the youngsters who are the movie’s target audience. Instead, the sole bad guy is gonzo holy man Rasputin, who puts a deadly curse on the entire Romanov clan and then, flash forward to 1926, runs around as a decrepit corpse laying traps for the now 18-year-old Anastasia (spunkily voiced by Meg Ryan, with Liz Callaway doing the singing) as she travels from St. Petersburg to Paris to reunite with her grandmother.

The movie is Fox’s promising attempt to mine a share of Disney’s animation gold (it’s no coincidence that Disney is rereleasing 1989’s The Little Mermaid now). But the differences between the two studios’ approaches are readily apparent: Anastasia is more lushly romantic than Disney’s efforts, the music more straightforwardly schmaltzy (with Broadway-esque songs by lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, who did the stage musical Once On This Island), and there are blessedly fewer cute animals and gargoyles cracking wise. Disney, however, clearly has Fox beat when it comes to putting expressive faces on characters and syncing lip movements to dialogue. (G)