Anastasia Review: Animated April

Year: 1997
Runtime: 94 Minutes
Directors: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
Writers: Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White
Voice Stars: Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria and Angela Lansbury

By Bianca Garner

For this Animated April, I decided to return to a few films that I adored as a child. In the past I have returned to the likes of “Thumbelina”, a film that I realised wasn’t as good as I had remembered it. I’ve always been wary about revisiting some of the other films that played a significant role in my childhood such as “The Little Mermaid” and “The Fox and the Hound” however I’ve decided to rewatch them both. I always felt very wary about re-watching “Anastasia” which had been a real favourite of mine. I really connected with Anya (voiced by Meg Ryan, with singer Liz Callaway doing the songs for Ms. Ryan) who was a spunky, no-nonsense young woman who just so happened to be a princess. I think a lot of girls secretly wish they were royalty even though they try to make out that they’re not ‘girly’. I was one of those types of girls.

Based on the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia, the film follows an eighteen-year-old amnesiac Anastasia “Anya” Romanov, who has just left her orphanage and is on the hunt to find her real family, with her only clue being her necklace which has the words “Together in Paris” engraved on it. Anya meets Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vlad (Kelsey Grammer) who are on the hunt for a woman who looks like the Grand Duchess as they are hoping to cash in on the reward being offered by Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury) for the return of her granddaughter. They’re not the only ones on the hunt for Anastasia. Grigori Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) is eager to find her in order to complete the curse he placed on the entire Romanov family. 

Still from “Anastasia” | Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, “Anastasia” was the pair’s most profitable film. Despite its historical inaccuracies (and trust me, there’s many), the film did receive raving reviews. Many viewers often mistake “Anastasia” as a Disney film, but the film was in fact produced by 20th Century Fox. Whilst, Disney did in fact dominate the animated Box office during the 90s, Bluth did give the mouse a run for his money. Bluth had experienced previous success with animated films “The Land Before Time” and “An American Tail” (both films were a favourite of mine on VHS during the early 90s). However,  “All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989) didn’t make much of a splash at the Box Office. Bluth’s follow-up films didn’t fare any better; “Rock’a’Doodle (1991), “A Troll in Central Park” (1994), and “The Pebble and the Penguin” (1995), all flopped. 

“Despite the attempts to make the film more light-hearted and re-imagine the history of Anastasia Romanov, the film can’t shake off the true history of what occurred. There’s always a constant nagging thought in your mind- it didn’t actually happen like this.”

Despite his flops, Bluth along with Goldman, were hired by 20th Century Fox to head their new animation studio. For their first project, the studio insisted they select one out of a dozen existing properties, and the likes of “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady” were shortlisted to be potential animated films. However, the pair didn’t believe that these classic films would make the right transition to the world of animation. The idea to adapt the 1956 Anatole Litvak drama  “Anastasia” originated from Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Bill Mechanic. Bluth and Goldman, decided to adapt elements from “Pygmalion” into the story, with the idea of Anya being moulded into a regal woman. 

Still from “Anastasia” | Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

How does one make an animated film based on the tragic demise of the Romanov family and try to aim at a family friendly audience. Well, as you probably expected, it wasn’t the easiest of tasks. Early into production, Bluth and Goldman actually began researching the actual events through enlisting former CIA agents stationed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Screenwriter Eric Tuchman had written a script that co-screenwriter Bruce Graham described as being “very adult, very based in reality, all about politics, and without any magic or comedy”. Something that doesn’t sound at all appealing to a young audience. Bluth and Goldman had to make the decision to try and tone down the ‘real history’ and in 1995, Bruce Graham and Susan Gauthier reworked Tuchman’s script into a light-hearted romantic comedy.

Despite the attempts to make the film more light-hearted and re-imagine the history of Anastasia Romanov, the film can’t shake off the true history of what occurred. There’s always a constant nagging thought in your mind- it didn’t actually happen like this. The overall tone of the film is inconsistent, with the horror elements clashing heavily with the film’s more rom-com moments. There’s little attention given to the development of Rasputin as a properly established villain. Instead, the film whizzes along at a neck-breaking speed to cover every plot point in under 95 minutes.

Still from “Anastasia” | Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Although, there are a few grumbles to be had, there is a lot to enjoy from rewatching “Anastasia”. The film certainly has aged quite well in terms of its animation with the blending of hand-drawn animation with effective computer-generated images. The world of “Anastasia” seems well-developed and lived-in. There’s a sense of realism contained in the film’s scenery, with the obvious effects of time being shown in the film’s grand locations and the character’s costumes. The film looks expensive, and it looks like there’s been a great deal of time and effort taken to create each and every frame. This isn’t simply a poor carbon copy of a Disney film, but rather it’s an animated classic in its own right. 

Whilst the animation is on the same level as Disney (in fact, at times I think it even surpasses the studio), the songs are less memorable than anything from this era of animated Disney features. Some songs do work, like “Once Upon a December” in which Anya reminisces about her lost family and dreams of attending a large ball (the dusty abandoned dance hall suddenly becomes alive with the ghosts from the past). Another song, “In the Dark of the Night” (sung by Jim Cummings) is truly great and on par with the likes of “Be Prepared” from “The Lion King”. Watching these two musical numbers all these years later and I’m suddenly transported to a time when I would re-watch these scenes on repeat trying to memorize every line. 

Still from “Anastasia” | Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

“The world of “Anastasia” seems well-developed and lived-in. There’s a sense of realism contained in the film’s scenery.”

The voice talent does an extraordinary job of bringing the characters to life. Ryan and Cusack have great chemistry, and even recorded their lines together which helped to make the relationship between Anya and Dimitri seem more realistic and natural. Christopher Lloyd and Hank Azaria (who voices Bartok: Rasputin’s mild-mannered, talking, albino bat assistant) manage to bring some much needed comic relief to the film. And, Angela Lansbury is Angela Lansbury- she’s just simply wonderful. 

So, did “Anastasia” manage to live up to my childhood expectations? It did manage to keep me entertained for the majority of its runtime, although I felt a little bored towards the film’s second half as it all felt a little too familiar (we’ve seen the story of “Pygmalion” done a dozen times before) and I didn’t find myself laughing at the jokes that used to have me in stitches as a child. The film needed to try harder with its jokes and the 90s Rom-com factor that was injected into it really makes the film feel date (the character of Anya feels like she’s the ‘Disney-fied’ version of Viviane from “Pretty Woman” at times especially when she’s having banter with Dimitri).

Still from “Anastasia” | Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

However, the character of Anya has many feminist traits to her personality and manages to rescue herself and Dimitri during the film’s climax. As animated Princesses go, Anya is definitely a very fiercely independent one but she still clings onto the dream of having a fairy tale ‘happy ending’. And, despite all of its flaws and historical inaccuracies, there’s no denying the fact that this film still manages to have that magical quality which made me fall in love with it all those years ago.

“Anastasia” can be found on Disney+.

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