REVIEW: Anastasia [1997]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: G | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: November 21st, 1997 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Director(s): Don Bluth & Gary Goldman
Writer(s): Susan Gauthier & Bruce Graham and Bob Tzudiker & Noni White / Eric Tuchman (adaptation)

“In the dark of the night she’ll be gone”

In a fantasy world where royalty was adored as idyllically benevolent leaders thinking only about how to protect and serve their people, the Romanovs were betrayed by the evil Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) who subsequently consorted with the Devil to wield dark magic powerful enough to curse their entire bloodline to death. His goal was to eradicate them and seize control, but things didn’t go quite as planned. And although the princess Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst) narrowly escaped his grasp when he fell to his own demise, Russia believed for ten years that both died that day. Because the girl’s grandmother (Angela Lansbury‘s Dowager Empress Marie) watched her fall unconscious to the platform as she fled to Paris by train, hope was practically nonexistent. Truth, however, proved much more complex.

As the prologue to Don Bluth and Gary Goldman‘s animated reimagining of Anastasia, this sequence of events reveals straight away that their vision was an obvious departure from history. It didn’t start that way, however, as Eric Tuchman‘s original adaptation contained the adult-oriented political intrigue you’d find while researching the Romanovs’ demise at the presumed hands of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Knowing authenticity isn’t high on children’s minds, Susan Gauthier and Bruce Graham were hired (with Bob Tzusiker and Noni White taking over upon their departure) to transform that treatment into the comedy it became. They alter time so Rasputin can serve as their unhinged (and undead) villain with a Disney-esque albino bat (Hank Azaria‘s Bartok) at his side while injecting a “Pygmalion” subplot for romantic intent.

Upon meeting these characters again a decade later, rumors that Anastasia still lived had already captivated the nation—so much so that people began training women to pretend they were the lost princess in order to earn a hefty reward waiting with the Dowager and Sophie (Bernadette Peters) in Paris. Two such charlatans actually worked in the palace while the Romanovs were in power and thus know everything necessary to construct the perfect candidate. All they were missing was someone to teach. As fate would have it, a young orphaned amnesiac named Anya (Meg Ryan) happened to also be looking for them. She needed forged papers to decipher a necklace’s promise of family living in France and one look at her told them they’d found their impeccable accomplice.

The journey that unfolds is one like many we’ve seen before. Anya is a headstrong woman who refuses to bend to young Dimitri’s (John Cusack) controlling ego despite being willing to play along in the hopes that she could be the real Anastasia after all. He wishes she’d just listen to what he says and do her job, feeding her hope to keep her pliable and trusting under the assumption he’s doing this to help her rather than using her to help him. And Dimitri’s partner Vlad (Kelsey Grammer) simply watches their war of words and frustrations with a knowing look towards the fact that they’re obviously falling in love. With his sights set on Sophie (and hers on him), the more love permeating the air the better.

So they feed Anya the history she’ll need to fool the Dowager (or confirm her lineage) while traveling across Europe. It’s a fun ride with a welcome clash of personalities—a potent one in its eventual realization of the truth too. They aren’t, however, alone thanks to Rasputin’s evil curse looming large. Although he died and went to the underworld, he’s still “alive” and waiting for an opportunity to wreak revenge once more. Bartok (reclaiming his master’s tool of sorcery) finds him there with the news that Anastasia’s alive. Unable to keep his limbs attached to his body, Rasputin decides to send magical minions up to the real world to kill the girl for him before ultimately acknowledging that he’ll have to ascend and do it himself instead.

It’s a weird dynamic because Anastasia and Dimitri never actually confront Rasputin until the very end. He’s always in the background with his yellow demons performing his bidding to force his adversaries into narrow escapes, but he and Bartok are more background comic relief than true source of peril. The drama is therefore born from the two lies Dimitri has told: one bald and one by omission. Because once he discovers that Anya is Anastasia after all, he doesn’t let her know. By refusing to do so, he continues to risk her discovering that his intentions from the start were always to use her for money. Being more empathetic and self-hating than his initial run of vanity presumed, this guilt prevents him from telling her how he feels.

Their romance becomes the real point of intrigue. While a Rasputin fight is inevitable, his defeat is too. So rather than fear him, we revel in his over-the-top embellishments (Lloyd is wonderful in the role) as a reprieve from the main story. Our energy can thus target the uncertainty surrounding Anya and Dimitri’s unrequited love and tenuous futures. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens‘ songs help facilitate by keeping Rasputin’s numbers entertaining and Anya’s heartfelt with a mix of exposition and nostalgia. Both she and Dimitri are motivated by a desire to rise from exile, poverty, and isolation. They yearn for the happiness of their past while striving to escape its chains and start anew. By no longer letting the Romanov name dictate their path forward, they just might.

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