We all have our favourite animated movie that isn’t Disney. This was mine as I remember watching this on TV and even remember that it was recorded on Video, then as time went on I forgot the name of this movie but I remembered what sorta happened in it (specifically the ending fight sequence) and the feeling of the songs. I can’t remember when I discovered it, but it certainly was the internet age with my computer and I have loved it since (have seen the movie multiple times on Netflix both in English and Finnish, own the movie soundtrack as well as the soundtrack for the soon closing Broadway musical based on the movie). So yeah, a lot of nostalgia goggles in play here! Oh and this is better than any Disney movie in my opinion because its a masterpiece in how it deviates from it, though still borrowing things from it (like all animation studios did in the 90s).
In Imperial Russia in 1916 the Romanov family is celebrating their families 300th anniversary in Saint Petersburg in their palace. There Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna tells her favourite 8-year old granddaughter Anastasia that she will be going back to Paris soon and gives her a music box with their song in it. Grigori Rasputin enters the celebrations and with Tsar Nicholas II demanding he leave for his traitorous behaviour Rasputin says he curses the family and leaves. Soon as he takes his revenge the Revolution erupts and the imperial family flee, but Anastasia disappears. Ten years later, Russia is under communist rule and two con men named Dimitri and Vlad are searching for someone to pretend to be Grand Duchess Anastasia so that they can get the reward money that the Dowager Empress has put out for finding her. They come across Anya, an orphan who is searching for her family and a ticket to Paris, which they both have. What follows is a fantastical reality filled with great music, story and top notch animation from the dedicated mind of director Don Bluth and Gary Goldman.
The historical inaccuracies in this movie are multiple. But this movie is not based on reality of the last Romanov family (only partly), more its based on the old 20th Century Fox movie Anastasia (1956) with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner (which itself is based on the 1952 play of the same name) and as well on the woman who believed she was Anastasia named Anna Anderson.
Anna Anderson got a lot of people on her side, but with the finding of two partial bodies in Yekaterinburg in 2007 and the DNA tests based on them as well as other previously found bodies of the family members have confirmed Anastasia dead. DNA tests were done on Anna Anderson in 1994 and were confirmed to not be related to the Romanov’s.
Now away from the technicals and to the movie! Because people love nitpicks and i’m up for it and I will talk through some things this movie gets “wrong” and what really are just depressing facts of the real life people.
- The Romanov’s 300th anniversary was actually in 1913 not in 1916 as the Romanov families rule was established in 1613
- Dowager Empress Marie actually resided in Copenhagen not in Paris
- The Dowager Empress believed the whole imperial family was in hiding, having only heard the news of the death of her son Nicholas that was confirmed by the Russian government, and set up a reward for anyone to find the rest of the family members including the other children Olga, Tatiana, Maria and the little boy Alexei
- Grigori Rasputin was not a sorcerer of any kind, though he used hypnosis on Alexei, it was his association with the Empress Alexandra that was one of the causes for the Romanov family’s descend with the Russian people
- Saint Petersburg was called Leningrad by the year 1926 in which this movie is set in
- Rasputin was assassinated in 1916 by aristocrats for his association with the Imperial family, specifically Empress Alexandra and Nicholas
- Anastasia had a dog named Jimmy that died with her in the cellar, along with the whole family in the cellar in 1918
- Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden was a lady-in-waiting, but for Empress Alexandra, not the Dowager Empress and she wan’t a cousin either as stated in the film where the fictional Sophie Stanislovskievna Somorkov-Smirnoff might be partly based on her
But despite all of these facts the movie does pay both homage and real life history to the Romanov’s and the family. It recreates the rooms of Catherine Palace, uses real conversations and artefacts of the family that survive. Sure, the Communism part is downplayed but then again this a family movie, to put any more emphasis on the dark things and fear under the communist regime as well as the political implications that would fly over many kids heads. But hey, if they get interested in the real Romanov’s and history because of this movie (I am currently studying history so I count myself in that lot) I am not going to complain about historical tweaking for the sake of entertainment unless I can see it has a real reason to do so, like it had here.
And back to the movie! The characters in this are so wonderful because of the basis in reality with them that one can see in their animation style that reflects the looks of the real people, not counting Vlad or Sophie who are slightly off by being more cartoony, but one doesn’t notice it much. They are all developed so well its funny how good its done!
Anya (Meg Ryan) is a different kind of princess one saw for example from something like Disney at the time (this movie is not Disney its 20th Century Fox) where the princesses main trait was clumsy with a need to fit in with the society that mocks them. I would call Anya more of a heroine the anything, though she is a princess too. She is quick witted, snarky, she can be rude and even slap her love interest (though not without reason given the situation) with no restrictions of a “brand” on her character. With her attitude based on the real Grand Duchess Anastasia who really was a trickster as well as a tomboy one can see where Anya is based on her as well as the parts that make her a compelling character little children can see this world through and perhaps hope to be a long lost princess as well.
Dimitri (John Cusack) is a con man with a heart of gold who is drawn realistically attractive (Don Bluth knew how to draw ’em well jus saying) and whose character is one with the most outward change to go through. He is like from a different movie with shades of grey (but still light) in him as well as he comes to see how his love for Anya would not fit in her new world and he wants her happiness above anything else even if it means sacrificing his own feelings for it to be so.
Indeed Anya and Dimitri are a one of a kind of couple we hardly see in animated films (at least at the time in the 90s). The romance if one looks for it is shown almost in the background, growing naturally from snark dialogues (apparently Carrie Fisher helped with the scenes where romantic tension was needed, so that explains a lot) for him to wrap his fingers around hers when trying to talk to her while they are watching the ballet. Just look at the above clip so see the chemistry!
There is a lot of saving from both sides in this, unlike for example something like Disney’s Aladdin or Beauty and The Beast where the saving and action was prominently done by the men (rewatch them if you don’t believe me), but in this the last blow is done by Anya herself. And the end choice to live as she chooses is done by her, because that is who she is, she chooses and makes her own decisions.
The rest of the cast with Kelsey Grammar (Frasier!) as Vlad, Bernadette Peters as Sophie and Angela Lansbury as the Dowager Empress are very fit for their roles and give depth and humour to this partly realistic world. With Christopher Lloyd as Rasputin putting on his most menacingly dark voice as the villain is both memorable and terrifying.
The songs are absolutely spectacular, you’ll sing along and remember them long after the movie because they are so well composed by David Newman. Oh a disclaimer because I am not a musicologist or anything so I am just talking about the songs and how good they are.
From the first song ‘A Rumour in Saint Petersburg’ is musical number filled with the people of Sant Petersburg as they live on gossip, telling us expositions and motives a first crowd song is supposed to do as well as done in such a scale one wants to see it in live action.
‘Journey To The Past’ is the winner for many with its wonderful quality of being an ear worm. Its a wonderful sing along peace one can do at karaoke’s with its building to a triumphal ending done by Liz Callaway.
‘One Upon A December’ is the sweeping fantasy sequence filled with sorrow, chills and melancholy of a lullaby that I want to see in live action. There is a Broadway show, yes, but give me the movie based on it people!
‘In The Dark of the Night’ is a good villain song, but I personally skip it for the others in the soundtrack. Then the final song
‘Paris Hold the Key to Your Heart’ is a sizzling song filled with references of people who lived in Paris in the 1920s with a sad slow part from Dimitri making it such a art piece as the backgrounds turn in to impressionistic paintings with a can-can part in it as well, its really made for history buffs to a game of spot the joke and reference and its happy, simple as that.
Special mention must go to ‘At The Beginning’ which is an original pop song at the end when the title’s roll that might make its way in to some people’s wedding music lists to sing in it or to be performed. It is that kind of good and fun listen with the words emoting so much.
“I guess every lonely girl would hope she’s a princess” is the message of this movie. Indeed the name Anastasia means “resurrection” in Greek, so one can easily see where this mythos for her has built from along with all the facts I’ve stated above.
The story in this film takes place in an alternate reality with magical aspects in it. Heck the night they go and watch the Russian ballet (I presume the Ballet Russe) they are watching Cinderella. So this story is more of a rags to riches story than anything, from grey Russia to colourful Paris where the 1920s are in full swing.
So go watch this film! Be it nostalgic or not in whatever language you remember watching this, listen to the music and I don’t want you to forget the history, but to remember it, as Anya’s journey is one to remember her past so is it for us to remember that childhood we had as we watch this and to see how well this movie works even now as an adult.
And check out the songs from the Broadway show! They are different but the same with added songs that really work and are beautiful!
Thank you for reading!