This week’s choice for Family Movie Night is the 1997 animated film Anastasia. It is not a perfect but I find it very entertaining and I think your family will as well.
Anastasia was one of only two films from Fox Animation Studios which was formed in a merger with Sullivan Bluth Studios after their Thumbelina hadn’t done very well. Unfortunately neither of the films were big successes and they closed in 2000 but Anastasia has remained popular among animation fans and with good reason.
Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, Anastasia combines a real story with a fairytale feel, which is normally something I do not enjoy. For instance, I have big problems with Disney’s Pocahontas. The reason I think Anastasia fares a little bit better is most of the characters are fictitious where nearly all are real people in Pocahontas. Plus in Anastasia the characters are a little more nuanced than the ‘natives good, white people bad’ you see in Pocahontas. I don’t give it a complete pass on the inaccuracies but Anastasia does not make me as uncomfortable as other films.
What’s especially peculiar about Anastasia as source material is it is not about the princess but about the woman Anna Anderson who in the 1920’s claimed to be the princess. It’s a strange place to start a story but it works as kind of a mystery.
Basically the plot starts when the Romanov family led by Tsar Nicholas are murdered by a military coup led by Rasputin. This is done mostly in flashback and is not as scary or bloody as it sounds. The youngest daughter Anastasia is rescued by a kitchen boy and flees the city. Next, we jump ahead 10 years and Anya is an orphan who doesn’t remember who she was or where she came from.
Meanwhile the Dowager Empress Marie, Anastasia’s grandmother, has put out a reward for anyone who can find the princess. Tempted by the prize, two con-men, Demitri and Vladimir, hold auditions to find a princess they can pass off to Marie and get the money. Anya stumbles upon them and naturally gets the part. They begin training her on the ways of the royal family and house and start a road trip to Paris to meet with Marie.
Rasputin is naturally the villain in the picture and he is voiced by Christopher Lloyd. His song ‘In the Dark of the Night’ is very well done even if it does look a lot like Be Prepared from The Lion King. Rasputin in this version has sold his soul to the devil in order to remove the Romanov family from the earth, so deep is his hatred for them Once he finds out Anastasia may be alive and going to meet her Grandmother he of course tries to kill her. One especially dramatic sequence involves a train crash which is so well animated.
The animation in Anastasia is lush, vivid and beautiful. I kind of wish Don Bluth hadn’t completely abandoned his signature more sketchy style but it cannot be denied how good the movie looks. The plot is also tightly paced and engrossing. They did a good job with the chemistry between Demitri and Anya and aside from a lame liar reveal subplot they are believable as a couple.
All the vocal performances are good except it is annoying to me that aside from Lansbury and Grammer nobody does their own singing. In a film like this celebrity voices aren’t necessary. They don’t add anything to the story and I think they should have just gone with the singers for all the vocals. Let’s put it this way: nobody went to Anastasia to hear John Cusack’s vocal performance, so at best it is an unnecessary expense.
That said, the songs are the real standout to Anastasia. It feels like a Broadway play and that is probably because they are written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty who have done many shows including Ragtime, Once on this Island and My Favorite Year. In some cases the lyrics are actually stronger than Disney offerings such as Tarzan or Hercules (which I adore both). The score is also good by David Newman. I think if Anastasia had been a bigger hit they could have had a great Broadway musical out of it.
Overall, Anastasia ends up being a very entertaining animated film. There is a nice heart to the picture and the romance really works. The songs are well done and the animation is lush and vivid. If you watch it with your family it might be a good chance to talk about some of the true history and the adaptation process within different mediums. You can also discuss honesty, self-discovery and the importance of family. In the end it will be a great choice for the entire family for Family Movie Night.
Overall Grade B