A history lesson about the life of Her Imperial Highness Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov of Russia wrapped in a Disney shell is one way to describe the 1997 animated movie musical Anastasia. While, not technically a product of Mickey’s Mouse House, rather a Twentieth Century Fox production, it is Don Bluth, one-time star Disney animator and now noted Disney rival, waving the white flag at them. After Disney’s resurgence with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, their standards became the defining benchmark for children’s cinema.
This seminal underwater excursion saved Disney from bankruptcy, and made waves for the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, cinching a winning formula: coming of age stories, set to a Broadway style soundtrack. Anastasia’s Anya is indebted to The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, their princess prototype protagonist: hair as fiery as her personality, gleaming sapphire eyes and tiny frame. That last one is less Disney’s doing, more circumstance. One would struggle to maintain puppy fat after ten years in a Soviet orphanage, as Anya had. Bluth could claim other influences – Anastasia is the Russian Revolution with a Nora Ephron edge, with voice roles for rom com darlings of the day: Meg Ryan as amnesiac orphan Anya and John Cusack as dashing con man Dmitri.
To understand this reimagining of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and its aftermath, for the sake of history, focus strong emphasis on the IMAGINING, because the film has a near insulting disregard for real events, people and ideas. Stephen Sondheim, master of historical musicals remarked that using fiction to carve a narrative is superior to fact. Anastasia’s attempt to do this can be summed up with one word: odd. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Anastasia but, gosh, its weirdness hits me every time. Bluth’s story does engross me, but it confuses me even more.
While I agree with Sondheim, it’s vital to leave space to pace the story, and the fictions have moments of suitable use in Anastasia. The decision to make Paris the safe haven of Dowager Empress Marie, Anastasia’s grandmother, as opposed to Copenhagen, is logical. Paris is easier to identify: the song Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart skims past endless landmarks: The Eiffel Tower, The Moulin Rouge and the Arc De Triomphe. Furthermore, it’s feasible to include cameos from notable residents of the time: Freud, Chanel, and more, enlivening the story further.
The myth surrounding Anastasia cries out for fleshing out. Investigating the canon of culture touching on her shows its durability. Comparatively, 1997’s Anastasia really crumbles. The 1956 original of the same name is smarter, sophisticated and softer in tone. The Oscar winning title role is played by Ingrid Bergman, who captures a childlike wonder – so far so Bluth. Sure, it poses the same unanswerable question: is this woman the last grand duchess? But the 1956 film goes deeper. Is she someone else? Does it even matter? The themes – mental illness, upheaval and nostalgia for old order – are handled with a fragility, something the animated version cannot match because it was tailored to a different target audience.
It’s less delicate, blunt with its angle. For example, the song A Rumour in St Petersburg is a number slating communism and asserting the brilliance of tsarism. Now, it’s hard to gauge if this is accurate. Neither approach seemed to be a picnic for your average proletarian, but motivation to end Romanov rule was genuine. Lenin’s vanguards may not have satisfied the thirst for political reform, but Russia was definitely dehydrated. The film attributes their downfall directly to Rasputin, who has an unexplained axe to grind, hexing them with a curse. In actuality, the Siberian monk was nothing without the reigning royals; their demise wouldn’t be biting the hand that feeds you, it’d be sawing the whole arm off. However, simplifying makes some sort of sense. He performs the baddie , matching other fairytales.
Imperial Russia does scream out for Disney treatment, with its opulence and majesty, which, visually at least, is well reinterpreted. However, not to flog a dead horse, but to put it out of its misery, the Russian Revolution, as the backdrop to a family friendly adventure, is borderline insane, with its complicated, contorted complexities.
I must ask: how on earth did this film ever get a green light?