Animated film buffs often consider the 1990’s Disney’s renaissance, as over the course of that decade the studio effectively regained its former domination of animated film making. Despite the studio’s unquestionable success, however, other studios continued to produce quality films that rivaled even the most highly praised work of their famous counterpart. Such is the case with the 1997 musical adventure Anastasia, which takes the well-worn princess formula and adds a dark sensibility and historical twist to create a wholly unique work that is truly in a category of its own. Using the tumult and tragedy of the Russian Revolution as a springboard, the film weaves a twentieth century fairy-tale that truly has something for the whole family.
|One princess you won't find waiting around for a prince|
The story begins in 1916 St. Petersburg, as Czar Nicholas II holds a tricentennial ball at the Catherine Palace. Suddenly, the ball is interrupted by the appearance of the recently banished former imperial advisor Rasputin. In an act of vengeance, Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) uses black magic to place a curse upon the entire Romanov dynasty, which ultimately culminates in the start of the Russian Revolution and the siege of the palace by communist forces. With the help of a servant boy the Czar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst), manages to escape, and she and her grandmother, Dowager Empress Marie, are the only surviving members of the immediate royal family. After the physical and emotional trauma of the siege Anastasia suffers from amnesia and spends the remainder of her childhood in an orphanage under the name Anya without any knowledge of her true identity. Ten years pass and Russia has fallen under communist rule and become the USSR, but hopeful rumors of the princess’ survival persist and the Dowager Empress (Angela Lansbury) offers a ten million ruble reward for information leading to her reunion with Anastasia. Capitalizing on the rumor, con-man Dmitri (John Cusack) and his partner Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) concoct a scheme to train a convincing look-alike to pass as Anastasia and split the reward money three ways. Just as the pair give up on their auditions for a potential ‘Anastasia’, however, they encounter Anya (Meg Ryan) and convince her that she really is the missing princess, all while remaining unaware of her true identity. The trio then embark upon a journey to Paris to meet the Dowager Empress, with the vengeful ghost of Rasputin following behind in close pursuit.
While marketed as a typical animated princess tale, Anastasia is a far darker and more complex take on the traditional formula. The most obvious example is the inclusion of a rotting corpse as the villain, which would have been deemed too graphic for most children’s films. More significantly, the film’s premise also diverges greatly from tradition in that it is derived from the real life incident in which a former mental patient was semi-successfully presented as the real Anastasia. This historical context gives the story just enough grounding in reality to set it apart from its ‘far away land’ counterparts, and the real life upheaval that engulfed Russia during the revolution provides a distinctly gritty backdrop for the film’s fictional proceedings., Although the film largely abandons history in favor of fantasy beyond that initial premise, the depiction of its heroine’s attempts to cope with the all too real displacement and loss faced by people across revolutionary Russia, is far more resonant in any era than the problems explored in most family entertainment.
|And that is how you throw a party|
Beyond its historical setting, the depth with which the film imbues its characters outshines even many of Disney’s most beloved classics. For example, while most princess films focus upon a heroine struggling to find love Anastasia’s journey refreshingly focuses upon her efforts to find herself, and her eventual romance is just one step in her larger quest for self-discovery. Similarly, the film’s protagonists are flawed characters with Dmitri and Vladimir eking out a living by deceiving others, Anya exhibiting an immature haughtiness, and Empress Marie becoming jaded after years of loss and disappointment. Yet it these same flaws that make the characters entirely human and make their eventual growth over the course of their adventures so rewarding. Through its emphasis upon its cast of lovable misfits, the film contains the heart to rise above its vast historical inaccuracies and fairy-tale trappings. As a result, while the film may have been designed to profit off of the popularity of fairy-tales, the story is at its heart one of average people trying to make the best of a world turned upside down by the sweep of history, which owes as much to such historical epics as Doctor Zhivago as to traditional fairy-tales such as Snow White.
The film’s combination of effective performances, breath-taking animation, and memorable songs successfully weave a spell that is nothing short of cinema magic. The character designs, while reminiscent of Disney are largely more realistic, lending the film a more mature touch before the first line of dialogue is even spoken. The settings cleverly incorporate the artistic styles of the era with the trio’s arrival in Paris particularly standing out for its use of modernist art and cameos by various historical figures. The fantasy ballroom sequence in which the decrepit Winter Palace is briefly restored to its pre-revolution glory is truly stunning and every bit as breathtaking as Beauty and the Beast’s more well-known ballroom scene. The songs are also consistently catchy with waltz “Once Upon a December” proving nothing short of haunting as it captures Anya’s desperate struggle to reclaim her past. The voice actors all lend apt performances with John Cusack and Meg Ryan each providing multifaceted turns and bringing plenty of spark to their animated pairing as Dmitri and Anya. Angela Lansbury brings a world-weariness and pathos to her role as the Dowager Empress that ensures her performance ranks on par with any live action role in her legendary career. Kelsey Grammer and Bernadette Peters lend apt comic performances in their supporting roles and imbue Vladimir and his ex-girlfriend turned Dowager Empress’ lady in waiting Sophie with plenty of charm. Christopher Lloyd is appropriately sinister, while his interactions with talking bat sidekick, Bartock (Hank Azaria), provide welcome comic relief for young viewers.
|No fairy tale would be complete without a happy ending|
Through its compelling story, hypnotizing score and dazzling visuals, Anastasia proves that animation isn’t just for kids. While its certainly no historical text, the layered characters and detailed animation brings the world of early twentieth century to Europe to vibrant life, and sheds a family friendly light on one of history’s most notorious mysteries. For a modern fairy tale, few films are as utterly enchanting as Anastasia.