Fox’s first attempt at an animated musical event succeeds surprisingly. Even today often mistaken as a Disney film, Anastasia definitely borrows elements from the reigning traditional animation studio. Because it does so deftly and purposefully it’s easy to forgive. Loosely based on Anatole Litvak’s 1956 film of the same name, Anastasia combines the intriguing premise shrouded in mystery, with a captivating road-trip that offers heart, music and most of all, an endearing love story.
The powerful underlaying theme of the films stems from its historic set-up. Though offering an edited, toned down re-telling of the tragedy of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the prologue is still harrowing and dark. By turning Rasputin in an evil sorcerer, the movie takes a more softening approach to his relationship with the Russian princess. Here, a young Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst) nearly escapes St. Petersburg with her grandmother, Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Angela Lansbury). Unfortunately, she falls before she can climb aboard the train with her grandmother and the two remaining members of the royal Romanov family are separated.
It’s exactly this origin that keeps the movie so interesting. While the movie cuts to a decade later with Anastasia (Meg Ryan), now an orphan with memory loss, the audience knows her true identity and destiny. With the reality in mind, audences know more of Anastasia than she does herself. The alteration of history is necessary for young audiences, but not only does it hardly take away any of the suspense or mystery, it adds to the wishfulfillment of a life the real Anastasia was never given. The movie captures the sensation of one of 20th century biggest mysteries. That sensation is appropriately addressed in the movie and triggers much of the audience’s investment. It gives an otherwise obvious Disney rip-off a much deeper meaning.
For its proportionate historic value and resonating backstory, the movie surprises with a welcome lighter purpose: a love story. Surely, the lead character aims to find her family, with the audience anticipating a reunion with her grandmama. That only makes it more refreshing when the movie slowly develops a different kind of love story between its two protagonists. Anastasia, broke and out of options, comes to find Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer). Two con men who audition girls to find one they can present to the Dowager Empress in Paris, who offers a reward for anyone who can reunite her with her granddaughter. The three agree to go to Paris, Dimitri and Vladimir for the money, Anastasia for possible answers. The movie joyfully toys with its three characters questioning what the audience already knows about this “con” but truly excites through chemistry of characters. Hidden under the subtle set-up of each character’s motives and goals, there’s something disarming about this particular romance. It’s not love at first sight, it’s not even convenient for anyone, it’s just occuring on a long journey. Dimitri and Anastasia initially don’t get along, offering witty banter and delicious friction, with Vladimir keeping the dynamic balanced. But there are many obstacles along the way, which put them in situations where they equally enrich and save each other’s lives. Not before long the audience roots for Anastasia to get both that what she wants, and what she needs.
The mandatory bad guy in this story is Rasputin, who, devoid of historic accuracy, sold his soul to put a curse on the Romanov family for abandoning him from court. His magic sparked the revolution that killed most of the family and so his soul cannot rest as long as Anastasia is alive. Thus, the evil but cartoonish Rasputin (Hank Azaria) returns, with a hilarious side-kick bat in tow. What otherwise would have sufficed as a pleasant character journey is elevated to a grim adventure as Rasputin tries to kill the lead princess repeatedly. The elusive devils that sabotage the train our heroes are on are frightful enough. The scene in which they penetrate Anastasia’s dreams is legitamely haunting. It’s not until the climax that we are treated to a showdown Disney always shied away from. Where Snow White fell for the Queen’s trap and Aurora was out cold, Anastasia actually picks up the duty of the final battle. The signs of her toughness are spread all over the movie, imaginably from her time in the orphanage. So when confronted with the man responsible for her life long suffering, this particular princess is out for revenge. It’s a testiment to the character, who still dreams of beautiful dresses and figuring out where she belongs while defying the men that try and control her life, that she’s developed herself far from just being a pawn. A goal her real life inspiration showed promise of but never got to achieve.
The animation is the only place where the movie shows signs of aging. To be fair, even back in the late 90s, the computerized elements of the movie looked more dated than impressive. However, there are just as much astonishing accomplishments here. There’s a beautiful ballad where Anastasia wonders through the ballroom of the Royal Palace, blending dream and memory as her family springs to life from a portrait, giving her a taste of the world that was taken from her. Though perfect for animation, this selective memory also poses as the story’s biggest flaw. Just as Rasputin’s attempt at her life, Anastasia’s memory loss (whether caused from the fall or time) is used in service of the story. Despite envisioning herself surrounded by the Tsar family, the movie holds off her remembering details no one but Anastasia could know until it’s necessary. In return, though, the movie gives both the lead and the audience, a far richer experience.
When all is said and done, any relationship depicted changes the characters for the better. Given that Dimitri starts off as a con man willing to deceive a girl and an old woman and Anastasia sees herself as nobody without her family, the movie works to show both characters there’s much more to them than what they set out to be. That’s really all you want from any movie, so seeing it delivered so well in an animated movie that also balances musical numbers, child friendliness and some serious mythology, is a treat. Through mountains and over seas, with evil curses and royal families, this movie is an animated journey that rivals any Disney. Anastasia isn’t cliche free but thanks to two protagonists with each their own desires, opinions and morals, this compelling romance
makes up for something far more interesting than an ordinary fairy tale.