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Anastasia: Fox's Great Hope

At last, Anastasia is here with great results. Harvey Deneroff reviews Fox Family Entertainment's first animated feature.

© Twentieth Century Fox.

Last spring, when I saw the first half hour of Anastasia as a work-in-progress, I really did not know what to expect. Like many others, I wasn't really sure how Marcelle Maurette's play was going to be turned into an animated musical. The film's prologue initially didn't seem to help matters much, given its seemingly reckless disregard for some of the niceties of Russian history; thus, the 300th anniversary celebration of the Romanov Dynasty, the Russian Revolution, the slaying of the imperial family, and the death of Rasputin all occur on one winter's night in 1916! Whatever happened to World War I? The date and method of Rasputin's final demise is sort of right, but what's with him putting a curse on the Romanovs and bringing on the Revolution?* Yet, Anastasia turns out to be an utterly delightful film, much of which was totally unexpected, as in some ways it is completely unlike anything Don Bluth has ever done before.

The part that really convinced me that something special was happening was the wacky but inspired sequence in limbo, where Rasputin (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) has been moldering for the 10 years since his death. His old aide-de-camp, Bartok, an albino bat (Hank Azaria), "drops in" and informs him that Anastasia is still alive. In his excitement, Rasputin starts to fall literally apart, a fact to which he seems oblivious. Then, recovering his dark powers, he sends his minions off to kill Anastasia, singing "In the Dark of the Night," a wonderful mixture of rock and traditional Russian choral music, with a gaggle of wormettes providing backup.

The effectiveness of this and other scenes is heightened by the overall realism of the character design and the live-action styled mise-en-scène and editing. Blessedly, there is nothing like the gargoyles in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame to dumb down the film and ruin its narrative flow.

Rasputin, Anastasia's character of necessary evil, with his adorable side-kick, Bartok. © Twentieth Century Fox.

The Tale

The story has an 8-year-old Anastasia (yes, she lost a few years in the script) escaping from the Revolution with her grandmother, the Grand Duchess Marie (Angela Lansbury), and inadvertently causing Rasputin's demise. The two get separated, Anastasia is knocked unconscious and gets left behind. The action picks up 10 years later, when Anastasia, known only as Anya (Meg Ryan) is trying to track down her past, whose only clue is a locket saying, "Together in Paris." In doing so, she falls in with two amiable con men, Dimitri (John Cusack), a former kitchen boy in the imperial palace, and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammar), a down-and-out aristocrat. The pair trick Anya into posing as Anastasia with the hopes of getting a 10 million ruble reward from the Dowager Empress, who now lives in Paris. With Rasputin in pursuit, the trio's journey to Paris provides opportunities for a spectacular train wreck sequence and a turbulent storm at sea. Through all this, Anya's memories start to return, although she turns out to be the last one to realize who she really is.

Anastasia is a sentimental retelling of the legend surrounding the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaievna, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra. While the tale has long captured the imagination of the public, the film's sentiment is surprisingly subdued and effective. This is helped by the way the script occasionally mocks some Disney-style clichés that occasionally pop up in the dialogue. Only the character of Pooka, the dog who serves as Anastasia's guardian angel, tends to be a bit cloying; but this is mitigated by the fact that he largely remains in the background and doesn't speak.

The History

The public's fascination with Anastasia largely centered on the case of Anna Anderson, who surfaced in Berlin in 1920 claiming to be the lost princess. Her claim gained some credibility due to the Soviet government's cover up of the slayings of the royal family in 1918. They initially only admitted that Nicholas had been killed. The Soviet silence was prompted by political considerations, as they did not want to offend Germany, with whom they had just signed a World War I peace treaty. Alexandra was, after all, a German princess before she became a Russian tsarina. Interestingly enough, an examination of the royal family's remains unearthed in 1991 showed the remains of Anastasia and her brother, the Tsarevitch Alexei, to be missing; however, a DNA analysis of Anderson's tissues indicated she was not the Grand Duchess.

Anderson's story served as the basis for a number of books, plays and scree treatments. The most familiar are based on Guy Bolton's English-language adaptation of the Maurette play. The 1956 Fox film (which served as the vehicle for Ingrid Bergman's return to Hollywood), a 1967 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie (for which Lynn Fontaine came out of retirement to play the Dowager Empress), and even a musical, I, Anastasia, which was staged in Miami, are all adaptations from this source material. The current film is based more on the 1956 film version directed by Anatole Litvak, rather than the original play, though it obviously takes considerable liberties with its source material, changing it from a drama into a high flying, romantic adventure comedy. In particular, the writers latched on to the Pygmalion aspects of the older film, which can be seen in the relationship between Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. Bluth's character design for Anastasia is heavily based on Audrey Hepburn, who starred in the screen version of My Fair Lady, to which he pays homage in one shot in the second half of the film.

The vagabond orphan Anastasia unknowingly wanders past a portrait of herself as a child. © Twentieth Century Fox.

Don Bluth, along with his long-time collaborator Gary Goldman, has had a checkered career, which initially generated considerable passion and enthusiasm; however, much of this enthusiasm waned among some aficionados, who felt his later films betrayed his promise of reviving the classic Disney style and techniques. While their initial feature effort, The Secret of NIHM, did not do well at the box office, their next two, done for Steven Spielberg - An American TailThe Land Before Time (co-produced by George Lucas) - went head-to-head with Disney in the mid-1980s, and lived to tell the tale. Bluth then broke with Spielberg. His subsequent efforts, made in Dublin, seemed to flounder both artistically and financially, as the animation renaissance, which he and his partners helped start, seemed to pass him by.

Thus, when Bluth and Goldman were set up as principal producer/directors at the new Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, the buzz around Hollywood was often less than positive. But in the end, 20th Century-Fox's gamble would appear to have paid off. Bluth's success with Anastasia seems due to a strong script, a first-rate pair of songwriters in Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who concurrently wrote the songs for the stage version of Ragtime), and the support of animation-wise executives, many of whom were Disney veterans.

Don Bluth (seated) and Gary Goldman. © Twentieth Century Fox.

The Battle

Even before it opens, the film has taken on an importance seemingly all out of proportion to reality. To judge by most commentators in the business and trade press, the very future of non-Disney animated features hangs in the balance, as 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., with The Quest for Camelot, and DreamWorks SKG, with The Prince of Egypt, prepare for a veritable Armageddon against the forces of Disney.

Disney, it is clear, is pulling out all the stops to derail Anastasia and protect its valuable animation franchise. First, Disney is reissuing The Little Mermaid followed by Flubber, a remake of The Absent-Minded Professor starring Robin Williams. They are probably also annoyed that people are coming into their local Disney Stores asking for Anastasia merchandise, a perception that Fox does not seem in any hurry to correct. However, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman have made a successful effort to break away from the by-now creaky Disney formula, and it is considerably better than anything the Mouse House has done of late. While I can't tell for sure how the battle of the animated titans is going to turn, I can unequivocally recommend Anastasia.

Ah, what would an animated musical be without love?

*It turns out, according to Edvard Radzinsky's book, The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II, that Rasputin actually did threaten to put a curse on the Romanovs. If one of the tsar's family killed him, Rasputin predicted that the imperial family would be killed within two years by "the Russian people." It was this revelation and Radzinksy's conclusion that the Revolution thus started with Rasputin's death that was crucial in the development of the character in the film.

Ah, what would an animated musical be without love? © Twentieth Century Fox.

Harvey Deneroff is editor and publisher of The Animation Report, an industry newsletter, author of The Art of Anastasia (HarperCollins) and the former editor of Animation World Magazine.