Film Review: Anastasia (1997)

“I guess every lonely girl would hope she’s a princess.”

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It’s about to get nostalgic up in here.

My roommates and I watched Anastasia this week.  I dare you to judge us.  And, ladies, I DOUBLE dare you to judge us.

Who DIDN’T love Anastasia as a child, especially if you went through a princess phase?  Twirling around your living room to the infectious musical numbers?  Fawning over the protagonist’s adorable canine sidekick?  Mistaking this movie for a Disney film every single time?

In case you didn’t know, Anastasia is a film from 20th Century Fox and Don Bluth (the guy behind that creepy rats of NIMH movie)…yeah, Disney didn’t touch this at all.  Now you know!

Yet, this film has Disney written all over it.  Why?  Because, in the ’90s, Disney proclaimed itself KING of all ye animated musicals that feature princesses who fall in love…and, shortly after Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine appeared on the scene, Anastasia followed suit.  Because 20th Century Fox and Don Bluth realized that this was making money.  So, bottom’s up: Disney Kool-Aid down the hatch.

I’ll say it right off the bat: Disney knock-off or not…Anastasia is actually a good movie.  And, my bias aside, I genuinely believe that there’s a lot here to enjoy, even if you don’t have a personal, sentimental attachment to the film.  Without further ado, this is Anastasia.

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In 1916, the royal Romanov family enjoys a world of utmost luxury and comfort in Imperial Russia. Tsar Nicholas II’s mother, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Angela Lansbury), is visiting from France, and, at the family’s lavish tricentennial ball, she promises her youngest granddaughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, that they will be “together in Paris” one day.  Suddenly, Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), the Tsar’s ex-confidant, crashes the ball and places a deadly curse on the Romanovs.  Soon afterward, the Russian Revolution breaks out, and, as Anastasia and her grandmother flee the palace, Anastasia collapses in the street and hits her head. The duchess and her grandmother are separated in the crowd.  Meanwhile, as he pursues the family, Rasputin drowns in an icy river.

Years later, eighteen year-old Anastasia (Meg Ryan) now answers to the name “Anya”: she has no memory of anything before the revolution.  Her only clue is a locket from the Dowager Empress, with the phrase, “Together in Paris,” inscribed on it.  After leaving the orphanage where she grew up, Anya resolves to travel to France to find whoever gave her the locket.  Meanwhile, the Dowager Empress is still searching for her lost grandchild; she has offered a handsome reward to whoever returns the Grand Duchess to her.  In order to collect the reward, con artist Dimitri (John Cusack) and his partner, Vlad (Kelsey Grammer), are auditioning girls to pretend to be Anastasia.  When they bump into Anya, they decide she is perfect for the part.  Believing that the men actually think that she is the real Grand Duchess, Anya agrees to play along. Together, Anya, Dimitri, and Vlad embark on a journey to meet the Dowager Empress in Paris.

Meanwhile, Rasputin is trapped in limbo because his curse on the Romanovs remains unfulfilled.  After realizing that Anastasia is still alive, he and his (talking) pet bat, Bartok (Hank Azaria), resolve to haunt and kill her, so Rasputin can finally rest in peace.

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Like other princess-oriented animated films of the 1990s, Anastasia is also a musical – and it happens to be a great musical.  The original songs (one of which received an Academy Award nomination) were written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the same creative team behind the Broadway musical/masterpiece Ragtime.  But we’ll get into the music soon enough…let’s just jump into The Good already!

THE GOOD

The first thing that struck me about this film…the animation is absolutely BEAUTIFUL.

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Because we now live in a decade when everything, even the cheapest children’s TV show, is animated with CGI, I have a very special appreciation for traditional animation (or hand-drawn animation).  And, while this type of animation was all the rage in the 1990s, that doesn’t mean that every animated film back then did it well. But, for Anastasia, I have one word: detail.

From the grand, breathtaking scenery of St. Petersburg at sunrise to every portrait, window pane, and speck of dust in the Romanovs’ abandoned ballroom, the animators were METICULOUS.  And the hard work clearly paid off…because the film looks fantastic.  It’s the kind of majestic, sweeping 2D animation that you’ll find in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast…the kind of animation that makes your jaw drop with every screenshot. At least, for me, that’s what the sets and backgrounds of the film evoke.

The characters are beautifully animated as well – there’s nothing too cartoony here, which I appreciate, especially for a musical, (historical?) spectacle like this.  And, speaking of characters, can we talk about what they’re wearing?!  I’m sorry, but the ten year-old girl in me has to come out on this one…the costumes are gorgeous!

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Maybe I’m going overboard with this one, but come on – Paris in the 1920s means CLOTHES.  And if I could get the number for Anya’s stylist, that’d be great, thanks.

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Also someone show me how to do that.

Fashion and appearances aside, let’s see if this film is as pretty on the inside as it is on the outside.  And we’ll start with Anastasia herself.

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Okay I lied, I’m starting with the outside: like any singing princess, she’s pretty…and not quite a Disney knock-off, for she is neither a redhead nor a brunette – but AUBURN-haired.

Fine, she’s Belle with blue eyes, happy?

Nevertheless, as long as she’s animated well, her hair and face are least important.  I happen to love Anya for other reasons.  She’s spunky, spirited, and never afraid to speak her mind – your standard, good role model for young girls.  But, while she shares these values with the likes of Jasmine and Belle, there’s something different about Anya.  After seeing this movie again, I think I’ve finally figured it out…she’s kind of a bro.  And she doesn’t even have to dress like one.

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Nope, Anya remains true to her girly self (even though she technically doesn’t know who she is for a good half of the movie…), but she keeps up with the boys too.  Even though she’s only eighteen and out on her own for the first time, she takes crap from NO ONE, especially Dimitri (the cute one).  You can’t help but respect that.

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Another common ground for these animated princesses of the 1990s: there’s always an “I want.”  And, for Anya, it’s a family and her own identity…to me, that’s legitimate.  It’s better than wanting something as vague as freedom from palace walls or…feet and a boyfriend.  Unfortunately, the end of the film kinda deviates from that want, but we’ll get to that later.

Back to the boys: the film does an excellent job of developing Anya’s relationships with Dimitri and Vlad.  Yeah, we all know Anya and Dimitri are going to fall in love, no surprise there – they banter and bicker, and there’s no way it isn’t going to happen.  But, at the same time, the film takes its time with the two of them…they get off on the wrong foot, but a few, brief moments indicate that they’re attracted to each other.  Eventually, they develop a friendship and, finally, a romance.  You have to see the film for yourself, but, in short, their relationship progresses at a believable pace, which is refreshing for an animated fantasy like this.

And speaking of Dimitri -

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Oh hi, fancy Jim from The Office. Well, I see it.

In my opinion, Dimitri is probably the most interesting character in the film…at least, he’s WAY more interesting than any of the Disney princesses’ knights-in-shining-armor.  He’s a charming, smooth-talking bad boy who’s a bit guarded about his past…which is typical enough.  But, the transformation of his character throughout the film is what won me over – and it’s all thanks to the thorough development of his relationship with Anya.  When we meet (adult) Dimitri, he’s out to manipulate a lonely, old woman by throwing some random chick at her, claiming he has returned her long-lost granddaughter.  On top of that, he’s out to manipulate an orphaned girl who suffers from amnesia by calling her a duchess, just so he won’t have to share the reward money.  Handsome or not, he’s a selfish, deceptive, bad guy!  And, he doesn’t change in a matter of seconds either…he transforms little by little throughout the course of the entire movie, as he spends more time with Anya.

This is why I truly believe that fleshed-out characters and the relationships that they share will make-or-break an entire story.  In my review of Despicable Me, I mentioned that we see the motif of love changing a misguided character’s heart over and over again.  The very same motif is present here, but, for me, its execution is especially strong because of the gradual nature of the character’s change.  The film allows you ample time to invest in Dimitri and Anya’s connection – you can’t help but feel proud of the guy for turning a new leaf in the end. So, bravo, writers of Anastasia.

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And, as I said before, Dimitri and Anya end up together…which, even if you take Dimitri’s change of heart out of the picture, it had to happen!  Who else is the princess going to fall in love with…Vlad?!

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Third. Wheel.

Actually, Vlad and Anya share a nicely developed father-daughter relationship, which lends itself to Anya’s own change of character.  While she starts out headstrong and determined to find her family, Vlad, who was once a member of the Imperial Court, provides her with some useful advice on being royal – an area in which she’s actually lacking some confidence.  We watch Anya grow comfortable in her new “identity” as the Grand Duchess, thanks to a few pep talks with Vlad (and a musical number featuring the voice of Fraiser – I mean Kelsey Grammer).  As with Dimitri, it’s a gradual change in Anya that takes its time.

But, just when you think Vlad is the “forever alone” character in this movie…enter Sophie, the Dowager Empress’ cousin.  Apparently, she and Vlad were “old friends” back when he rubbed elbows with royalty.  Ew.

But that’s not the point: let’s finally get into the MUSIC!  And what’s a Broadway-quality musical movie without a Broadway star…Bernadette Peters plays Sophie, that’s what I’m gettin’ at.

Now, who is this character again?  Really, she’s nobody important…but she is a vessel for one of the film’s most memorable ensemble numbers.  And, because Anastasia is a musical, I’ll definitely excuse an excess character who’s just there to lead a catchy song and dance number – in fact, a lot of the best stage musicals seem to go that route.

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It’s Bernadette, bitch.

While unfortunately Bernadette Peters only gets one number, all of the other original songs are easily just as memorable…and good.  Again, these are the same composers behind Ragtime – the music is top-notch.  The two fan favorites are Anya’s songs, “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December,” both of which rival any mezzo-soprano solo by Alan Menken.  The villain’s song, “In the Dark of the Night,” is also impossible to forget.  It’s a dark declaration of vengeance, and, in my opinion, it justifies Rasputin’s inclusion in the film at all…but we’ll get to that soon enough…yeah.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD

Anastasia, you’re doing good so far – solid protagonist, well-developed characters and relationships, and GREAT music and animation.  But I gotta ding you on the whole…um…Russian Revolution thing?

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Oppression, poverty, questionable government…forget all that. It was an evil wizard, guys.

I know this is a film aimed for children…I know we gotta keep the mood light…but, this is HISTORY, 20th Century Fox/Don Bluth!  I understand that the goal was to make the youngest daughter of the Romanovs look completely sympathetic…but you couldn’t at least include SOME accurate historical context?  Rasputin just shows up out of nowhere and starts the Russian Revolution?

Oh yeah, and for those who don’t know, Rasputin was a real person. And, even though the real Rasputin was creepy as hell too…he wasn’t Voldemort!  I just think it’s so strange to take a real historical figure and twist him into this purely evil, MAGICAL villain…why not just create an original villain?  In fact, was an antagonist even necessary in this film?  I……..we’ll get to that LATER.

I’ll be honest, I won’t deduct major points from Anastasia because of this.  Disney’s pulled this stunt too, with a little film called Pocahontas.  Again, real historical figures were used and abused, just for the sake of telling a kid-friendly, cinematic story.  But seriously, Pocahontas was a child when all of that went down.  If what happened in the movie happened in real life…John Smith would be up next on How to Catch a Predator: Pilgrim Edition.  Sorry if I just killed your childhood a little bit.

Anyway, despite the astonishing historical inaccuracies, Anastasia still gets a more positive review in my book.  I’m just bringing up a point that’s probably worth a discussion or two.  Because history’s no joke, son.

Something else that bothers me about this film…the ending.

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I love a happy ending as much as the next person.  In a fantastical animated musical, a happy ending is expected…just not this particular happy ending.

Rasputin is defeated, and Anya and Dimitri declare their love for each other – all good stuff.  But then, we see the poor Dowager Empress reading a hastily scribbled letter…Anya and her boyfriend have eloped, and she has chosen to abandon her new life as a royal.  But, in the note, Anya promises that she and her grandmother will still always be together!  But not really.

To me, it makes no sense: here is this character who, throughout the film, just wants to find her family (specifically whoever gave her the locket as a child).  She is eventually reunited with her family and comes into her own as the Grand Duchess, her rightful title – she finally knows who she is!  And, yes, Anya also finds love and romance along the way; she also finds courage when she stands up to Rasputin in the film’s climax.  Yet, for an unexplained reason, she has to make a choice: boyfriend or royal family…I guess because Dimitri is a commoner?  Again, it’s never really explained.

And, while the film develops Anya as a spunky tomboy, it never delves into her distaste for the royal lifestyle.  In only a few short scenes after Anya and her grandmother are reunited, the Dowager Empress starts talking about whether or not Anya will actually live happily as a royal…after all, grand parties and dancing are soooo boring.  I guess.  Anya never says so.

Yet, in the end, she chooses her new boyfriend over the woman who spent years trying to find her…without even a proper goodbye!  You can’t help but feel sorry for the old lady, even though she takes it well…

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B. S.

THE BAD

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Okay, here we go.  I hope crappy villains in the films I review won’t become a theme…because, if there’s anything I love, it’s a compelling villain.

Oh, Rasputin, you have a catchy musical number, I’ll give you that.  But, this character has the most two-dimensional and boring backstory ever.  See, Rasputin was once the Tsar’s most trusted advisor (look at him, who wouldn’t trust him?) – that is, until he was fired…for…stuff we never find out about?  Whatever.  So anyway, because he’s mad about being fired for some unexplained reason, Rasputin sells his soul to the devil to strengthen his magical abilities and curse the Romanov family (and single-handedly start the Russian Revolution, don’t forget that!) And, when most of the family dies, he’s satisfied – until he realizes that Anastasia is still alive.  He probably knows that the Dowager Empress is still alive as well, but forget all that, he just wants Anastasia to die!  Starting to see a problem here?

Anyway, before he drowns at the film’s beginning, we see Rasputin’s first direct interaction with Anya, as he tries to drag her under the ice with him.  His next confrontation with her is…right at the film’s end, or so-called “climax.”  In other words, the protagonist and the antagonist have little to no personal relationship…so the conflict between them is completely forgettable, at least in my opinion.  And before you say, “well, he did kinda kill her entire family,” guess who doesn’t realize that until the very end of the film?  Anya!!!

Furthermore, while Rasputin’s main goal is to kill the last Romanov daughter, Anya isn’t even aware of Rasputin’s existence for almost the entirety of the movie!  Yes, Rasputin sends his minions to set deathtraps for the princess and her friends (a runaway train, a nightmare that almost leads to her jumping off a ship), but our heroes dismiss these events as instances of bad luck.  They don’t even question that something funny’s going on…Rasputin, you are not worth the time.

So, why was he there in the first place?  Honestly, there was a solid moment when my roommates and I completely forgot about the character – his appearances are sporadically timed throughout the film, and you’re so focused on the relationships between Anya and Vlad and Dimitri…who cares about a villain at that point?

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One last point, then I’m done ranting: during the final (and second) confrontation between Rasputin and Anya, Dimitri arrives to try to save the day (though, thankfully, Anya isn’t a stereotypical damsel-in-distress).  Anyway, upon Dimitri’s appearance, Rasputin enchants this gigantic, stone statue of a winged horse to come to life and attack the reformed con man.  Keep in mind, Dimitri probably has NO IDEA what the hell is going on – he just knows that the girl he likes is in danger.  So, sure, giant stone horse, you’re on.

And, after Anya defeats Rasputin and reunites with Dimitri, neither of them address what just happened.  No explanation, nothing.  Just…hooray, we’re both alive, let’s get married!  Maybe I’m nit-picking, but I’m sorry…it was just such a bizarre sequence.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Although I’m not a Rasputin fan, at least we have his goofy sidekick, Bartok, who is played by one of my favorite voice actors, Hank Azaria.  Thus, the Simpsons nerd within me emerges.

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Bland villain, historical inaccuracies, and slightly disappointing ending aside, I still love Anastasia.  And, because this review ends with all of my negatives, you’re probably wondering why.

Okay, so maybe nostalgia does factor in some bias.  My generation grew up with a special love for animated princess films, mostly thanks to Disney.  But I have to give this little movie credit – it holds its own against any Disney princess film…it’s not like those movies were perfect.

But, for me, the MUSIC makes up for this film’s flaws.  From the songs to the score, Anastasia truly is a quality, Broadway show brought to the animated screen.  And, if you’re a Broadway buff like me, you’ll find this difficult to overlook.  Again, most of the characters are also written and designed well too – this film can stand on its own two feet, even without some of the music.  And, of course, I don’t need to talk about the movie’s scenery again…

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In my humble opinion, if you haven’t seen Anastasia yet and you enjoy the animated fairytale classics, I’d definitely check this out.  ESPECIALLY if you’re a fan of Broadway musicals.  And, if you are a fan of Broadway musicals, then who are we kidding – you’ve definitely already seen this.  Or, if this film is a childhood favorite of yours too, I’ll say it’s always worth another look.  I personally enjoyed my journey to the past with Anastasia, and I hope you do too!

4/5

7 thoughts on “Film Review: Anastasia (1997)

  1. Pingback: 5 moments in a story that made me root for the villain~by Kyndon Fall | The Write Stuff

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  3. I’m not a fan of Don Bluth, so that automatically makes me dislike this film.

    Now if I had to go deeper than that to say why I dislike this film I’ll say that I found it sloppy. I only saw it once and it seemed to start out interesting with a Russian Revolution backstory and then everything kinda went kaput from there. Christopher Lloyd’s voice is always fun and Bartok is wonderfully enjoyable (I quite enjoyed his spinoff film), but other than that, I remember thinking this movie overrated and appalled at how people can mistake this for a Disney film.

  4. Pingback: Jeobox – 23 Ways Dimitri From “Anastasia” Was A Major Heartthrob

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