“You know, you should watch your blood pressure. My nephew Izzy just keeled over one day mid-mango. Stress, it’s a killer, sir. And he was a fruit bat. No meat. No blood even.”
Oh this movie. Where do I even begin? I suppose I’ll start by saying that this movie really holds a special place in my heart. I was 13 years old when it came out, I owned the soundtrack (still do), and in my young naive teenager mind, this was the best, harmless romance movie that I simply adored. Now? Eh, it’s kinda corny, but I still love a lot of various aspects.
I will will start by saying this: movies based loosely on historical events are really hit or miss for me. I tend to get more picky and easily get upset when directors take creative license on things that were facts. I will get more into this in later reviews I’m sure, but when directors or writers change tiny stupid little facts to make a story more memorable or more dramatic, it really irks me (this is very different from how I view book adaptations… but we haven’t run into any of those yet…)
Anastasia is different because of the whole mystery (or sort of mystery?) that surrounds her. The entire Romanov family was executed as Russia rebelled and communism began, and the lack of evidence (ie: a body) of the death of both Anastasia and her brother Alexei led many to believe that they had somehow escaped. At one point some lady did come forward and say she was Anastasia (this has since been disproven) and any historian will tell you that there is no mystery. In fact in 2008 charred remains of a boy and girl were found, and DNA evidence concluded it was the missing Romanov children.
None of this was known when Don Bluth made this movie in 1997. It is a hypothetical princess story. This is why I have no qualms with the idea of this movie existing. It’s not history. It’s a fairy tale. What I do have a problem with is more that this movie, to me, shows just how far Don Bluth fell. For a man who left Disney and made a few amazing, deep movies, Anastasia (while it is good) is almost like a sell-out. Granted, he had made many really shitty movies (his last arguably good one was All Dogs Go to Heaven, and that was in 1989…), but at least they were original and nothing quite like the other companies were doing. The 90s were not good to him. Disney was in its Renaissance, and he felt he had to do something to get back on top. So what does he do? He takes the Disney princess formula and makes a movie. A movie that is so Disney that many people still confuse it as part of the Disney Canon.
The story is sort of straight forward enough. After we meet Anastasia’s grandmother from Paris and see the night that the Romanovs were executed, we cut to 10 years later and apparently now is the time the grandmother has chosen to search for her granddaughter. Some of our main characters, Vladimir and Dimitri, are con artists holding auditions for an Anastasia to get the Empress’s money. Meanwhile, Orphan Anya is trying to get to paris, because it’s the only clue she has about her past, which she forgets. They meet, Anya looks like Anastasia (hint: she is!) and they travel to Paris to impress the Empress. Only Anya and Dimitri fall in love. There’s also Rasputin. Cause he’s evil, and I guess we need to have a bad guy.
The characters are definitely memorable, and they have very good/well-known voice actors to do them. The con men Vlad and Dimitri (Kelsey Grammar and John Cusack), have a great camaraderie, although it always bugged me that Kelsey does a russian accent and John doesn’t even attempt (although that may be a good thing…). Anya is voiced by Meg Ryan in her “America’s Sweetheart” period. Being that Anya is naive and sweet and innocent, she was a perfect choice. Add in the other voices like angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters (I will get to the villains in a second), and it’s a stellar cast and most deliver very good performances. The characters have great relationships with each other, and like I said, the flirting/romance between Anya and Dimitri, in my opinion, is great. Even if it is the typical “I hate you first but I’m going to learn to love you” thing.
Ok…. Now to possibly my least favorite but also somehow my most favorite thing about this movie. That is the villain, Rasputin. What I don’t like is that they took a bit of creative license and made a man who was viewed as a healer, psychic, and mystic who possibly discredited the Romanov family and turned him into this crazy, psychotic, power-hungry man who wants nothing but to see all the Romanovs dead.
Oh, and did I mention he’s also technically dead? Yeah. That is the BEST thing about this movie. In my opinion, it was brilliant. Rasputin in the movie dies at the beginning by falling through some ice after selling his soul for the power to destroy the Romanovs, and the rest of the movie he is literally stuck in limbo as a rotting corpse. It lends for a lot of interesting but morbid humor and a villain who can’t physically confront the people he’s trying to kill. His personality reminds me a bit of how the Disney version of Hades was in Hercules. These movies both came out in ’97, so I guess it was the year of the insane animated villains. He’s crazy, one-track minded, and if it weren’t for his little sidekick, he would go through the roof (quite literally).
Ah yes, let us talk about sidekicks. It’s a very Disney thing that Don Bluth attempted in this movie with (mostly) good results. There’s Pooka, a dog drawn in very Bluth animation style, that joins Anya on her journey and befriends Vlad. Oh, and he can flap his ears and fly. I want a dog like that!!!! Then there’s Bartok. Oh Hank Azaria, why are you awesome in pretty much everything you do?? Bartok is a little white bat who is a bit clueless but very down to earth, and he is Rasputin’s sidekick. He doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with his boss, and just wants him to move on with his life (or, uh… afterlife) instead of dwelling on the past. He has the best lines in the movie. The relationship between he and Rasputin is amazing, and the two of them really do, for me, make this movie.
The songs on the whole are pretty good. They’re not insanely amazing or classic, but this was probably my most played soundtrack of 1997. They’re catchy and fun, and if you listen to them you’ll get them stuck in your head. As a kid, I really hated “Once Upon a December.” it was just really boring. As an adult, I appreciate it a lot more. It’s a pretty song.
Another few good things: I haven’t said much about animation style since I started this, but this movie deserves mention of something. There’s a song once they get into Paris called “Paris holds the key” that the great Bernadette Peters sings. The entire time this song is being sung, the backgrounds are done in a very impressionistic way. It really is quite unique and lends a lot to the song that I never even noticed the first few times I watched it.
Alright. With all this stuff I’ve been writing, there can’t possibly be anything I have bad to say about this movie… right? Well, other than the whole “Don Bluth selling out,” I really can’t find that much to really pick on this movie about. Watching it now, the “amazing” romance between Anya and Dimitri is now just “cute,” and almost a bit juvenile, but that’s ok, because this is a kids movie. While I have mentioned a lot about the voice acting being good, the few that I really don’t like are John Cusack (who, honestly, is just doing John Cusack) and Christopher Lloyd as Rasputin. His Russian accent is awful. The character is good, but I can’t help feeling like they could have found someone better. I just kept picturing Doc Brown while he was talking. I dunno. It was weird.
My last qualm with this movie is that bits of the plot are a bit hard to follow for a kid. I know what Don Bluth was doing: he was trying to put his dark, deep stuff into his movie, but with this one, it just doesn’t work quite as well as he probably wanted it to. Con men, selling your soul to the devil, dying and being stuck in limbo, communism… it’s a lot the movie is trying to do, and I understand it now, but as a 13 year old, I hadn’t yet really learned much about communism and didn’t really understand the whole significance of everything being in red and why they had to try so hard to get out of Russia. I hadn’t read Dante’s inferno and had no idea what limbo was. My education on the Romanovs consisted of this movie for a few years until I grew curious enough to research what really happened. In these aspects, this movie really fails. It’s not a good movie to watch if you actually want to understand what happened. You need to supplement with actual history.
It is, however, a good movie to watch if you just want an hour and a half of good characters, good songs, and hilarious one-liners. All in all, I would recommend Anastasia. Don Bluth may have sold out and done a Disney movie, but at least it was a good one.
I give Anastasia (1997) 4 stars out of 5
Next up: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West