The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Anastasia” (1997)

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
The Prince of Egypt

Before starting this series of posts, I had watched Anastasia and classified it as a film that paying attention in school ruined for me, which is what I also classify Pocahontas as. I had disliked it so much after that previous viewing that I considered not rewatching it for this post. I decided that would be unfair and after rewatching the film, it would have been.

Before I start with this analysis of sorts, I’d like to discuss the idea of the world of the film.

The world of the film is essentially the setting for the film and the “world of the film” helps justify the actions of the characters, no matter how bizarre they are. This is why Hercules is an enjoyable film; the film is silly and the world of the film enables the silliness to be accepted. This is what makes the thoroughly flawed Anastasia work, for the most part.

This film comes from the 1956 live-action film with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner that uses the urban legend that the Grand Dutchess Anastasia lived while the other Romanovs died as its basis. The film opens in 1916, where Tsar Nicholas II is hosting a ball where his mother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury), is in attendance. She arrives with gifts for her favorite granddaughter, Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst as a child, Meg Ryan as an adult), one of which is a necklace that has on the back, “Together in Paris.” Enter Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) who is mad at the Romanovs and vows to have his revenge. As it turns out, Rasputin has sold his soul to start the Russian Revolution. The Revolution begins and the palace is overrun with angry citizens. Marie and Anastasia escape the palace thanks to a kitchen boy named Dimitri, but the two are separated when Anastasia falls from a train, hitting her head. Meanwhile, Rasputin has fallen into a frozen lake.

Ten years later, there are rumors that Anastasia lived and Dimitri (John Cusack), all grown up and now a con man working with Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer), wants to make money off of this. Meanwhile, Anastasia is leaving the orphanage where she has grown up as Anya. She decides to go to St. Petersburg instead of the fish factory because of the necklace that says “Together in Paris.” She then goes to Dimitri, who is living in the palace, to try to get some fake papers. Dimitri notices how much Anastasia/Anya looks like Anastasia and decides she’ll masquerade as the Grand Duchess. Meanwhile, Rasputin has been awoken from Limbo by his albino bat sidekick, Bartok (Hank Azaria), and spends a good portion of the film trying to kill Anastasia. The trio, on the other hand, gets to Paris, where they’re informed by Sophie (Bernadette Peters) that the Dowager Empress does not want to see anymore pretend Anastasias, but that they should go to the Russian Ballet. And then the plot thickens as Anastasia begins to remember things.

Anastasia works for the most part in terms of its logicalness. Take for example Rasputin selling his soul to start the Russian revolution; this is something that is simultaneously awesome and ridiculous. But if Rasputin can sell his soul to initiate a key event in history, then a lot of things in this film make sense. This doesn’t help clear up all of the problems in the film, such as why are Dimitri and Anastasia the two people in the film that speak with American accents? Or how it is that in the climactic battle scene Dimitri knows where Anastasia is?

But like the film that it derives from, Anastasia is based on a legend that anyone can find out is false by opening up a history book. The film is entertaining, amusing, and Dimitri has a lot more depth than the average Prince Charming or rogue in any Disney film. The film does suffer from Let’s-Have-Drawn-Out-Sequences-Of-Rasputin-Trying-To-Kill-Anastasia fatigue, but it’s mostly enjoyable. What other film has a villain that sells his soul to start the Russian Revolution?

The songs, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (of Ragtime fame), are mostly memorable and tuneful. The one song in the film that stood out to me was “In the Dark of the Night,” which feels like pulling a page from The Lion King with a great, upbeat dark song where the villain sings about their triumphant return and how people should be prepared. Rasputin (singing voice of Jim Cummings) sings it backed up by a bug chorus, makes a triumphant return to the film and makes one actually hopeful that Rasputin will pull out the stops and make his plot very interesting. Unfortunately, it feels just like, “I will throw all of the magic I have at Anastasia.”

And in regards to the music, may we please take a moment to agree that “At the Beginning” was a very annoying earworm from the 1990’s?

In regards to the character of Rasputin, he’s a bit terrifying. Look at him. He just looks terrifying. And the guy sold his soul to start the Russian Revolution. There are things more nefarious than that—going on a mad hunt to find a woman you’re lusting for that involves setting a house on fire with the inhabitants locked in, setting a village on fire—that is a bit wicked. But at the same time, his attempts to kill Anastasia and permanently end the Romanov line ends up causing the film to lose momentum when really it shouldn’t lose momentum as the characters are on a runaway train.

As for the Cute Little Animal Character in this film, Bartok actually helps make the film enjoyable. Frequently, he serves as the little-heeded voice of reason to Rasputin. Yes, he is a wise-cracking sidekick/minion (In regards to Anastasia: “I’d give her a HA! And a HI-YA! And then a WA! And I’d kick her, sir.”), but he seems to add to the film rather than detract to it. Although his origins are never mentioned in the film, he seems to have been roped into the job of Rasputin’s minion. Although it’s nice to see Anastasia reunited with her grandmother, I found that Bartok was the one character I was rooting for in the film because he’s the most interesting character.

Although Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s film isn’t as well animated as a Disney movie, it still has some terrific animation. The film is horribly flawed, but it’s still enjoyable and a good children’s movie, although not a great introduction to Russian and world history. And if anything, the film shows us that Kelsey Grammer does a pretty good Russian accent.

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