Review: ANASTASIA (1997), an underrated animated adventure from the 90s
“Anastasia” is one of those animated films I remember from my childhood, but that for one reason or another, I hadn’t seen for a long time. Unlike classics such as “The Lion King” or even the “Toy Story” trilogy, “Anastasia” hasn’t stood the test of time, apparently. It’s not being mentioned on Internet lists, it’s not being appreciated by new generations of kids, and despite being available on Blu-Ray —and looking real nice on said format, by the way—, it’s not being talked about… anywhere. Which is a pity, because taking aside any kind of nostalgia I might have for the movie, “Anastasia” is a nice little production, the kind of animated fare that might not resonate with contemporary kids —because 2D animation is kinda dead, apparently—, but that might find a new audience with older people who didn’t see it in theatres more than twenty years ago.
“Anastasia” is based on the real story of Tsar Nicholas II, his family, and the Russian Revolution, but being a kids’ film, it takes many liberties regarding historical accuracy. After all, nobody decides to watch an animated movie expecting something taken directly from history books —this is a movie that mixes up real people and real events with dark magicians, talking animals, and a fairy tale tone. Yes, most of us know that Rasputin was executed, not thrown into the ice by a young Anastasia, but in the context of this particular story, it doesn’t matter. In fact, “Anastasia” is solid enough that it might encourage kids or even adults to research the actual history. It worked for me, at least.
The film starts with a prologue set in 1916 Russia, just before the revolution, and depicts the fall of Tsar Nicholas II in quite a unique limelight. He is cursed by the evil monk Rasputin (voice of Christopher Lloyd), which results in the death of every member of the Romanov family, except Nicholas' mother, Marie (Angela Lansbury), who escapes to Paris, and his youngest daughter, Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst), who goes missing.
The film then fast-forwards ten years, and we are told that Marie has offered a 10 million ruble reward for anyone who can find her granddaughter. Back in St. Petersburg, a pair of scammers, clever Dimitri (John Cusack) and happy-go-lucky Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer), are holding auditions for a fake "Anastasia" to take to Paris. But when they discover that sixteen year-old Anya (Meg Ryan) might be the real deal, they decide to teach her how to act like royalty, preparing her for an audience with Marie. Meanwhile, Rasputin is discovered by sidekick Bartok (Hank Azaria) in some kind of limbo —not dead, but not completely alive, either.
Much like the animated films Disney used to churn out during the 90s, “Anastasia” is a compelling mixture of comedy, drama, romance, and even a little action. The movie isn’t long enough to make kids feel impatient —it’s barely ninety minutes long—, but it feels epic enough to keep adults interested in the proceedings. The script makes sure one empathises with Anya, making one care about her quest to find her family —she feels like a living, breathing girl, hopeful and charismatic. And even though the presence of Dimitri might feel like a forced attempt to include a romantic element in the film, the scriptwriters are savvy enough to realise this is Anya’s story, and thus, don’t turn her into a damsel in distress or an archetypical Disney-like princess. When Rasputin gets his comeuppance (because of course he does), it’s Anya’s doing, not Dimitri’s.
Visually, “Anastasia” is quite delightful. Character design is on point —everyone looks human enough to resemble actual people, but cartoony enough to make the audience realise they are experiencing a fantasy—, and animation is fluid and lifelike. Backgrounds are detailed and colourful, and the directors even make use of a couple of real life filmmaking techniques, such as changes in focus, or camera movements —quite ambitious for an animated production, but well worth the effort. Even though “Anastasia” was made during that weird time in which Hollywood was moving from 2D to 3D animation, the movie doesn’t make extensive use of 3D elements mixed in with their 2D assets. And when it does, they don’t look as out of place as in, say, “Titan A.E.” or even Disney’s own “Treasure Planet”.
Predictably, “Anastasia” is also a musical, but only includes about six or seven songs, which means the song-and-dance numbers never wear out their welcome. In fact, many of the songs are quite memorable —pieces such as "Once Upon a December” or "Paris Holds the Key” are still engraved on my memory. The best thing about them, though, is that they don’t feel gratuitous or extraneous; they are used either to advance the plot or to develop the central characters, and thus, feel as though they are important pieces of the overall story puzzle. The fact that all the dancing and signing is expertly animated definitely helps, too.
Voice acting is serviceable. Meg Ryan gives Anya (or Anastasia) enough spark and personality to turn her into one of the most memorable animated protagonists of the 90s —she’s surprisingly sarcastic, never taking herself too seriously, but also human enough for one to care about her during the more dramatic moments (most of them involving the rediscovery of her past, of course). Dimitri is a little flat as a character, but John Cusack manages to give him some charm —despite the fact that I could never stop listening to Cusack The Famous Actor—, and Christopher Lloyd is absolutely perfect as Rasputin. He’s nasty, he’s evil, and he won’t stop at nothing to get revenge on the Romanov family. As Bartok, Hank Azaria sounds a little like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. The character proved to be popular enough to get his own direct-to-video spin-off movie, though.
“Anastasia” represents the best the 90s had to offer as far as animation was concerned. It gives a fairy tale spin to a real-life tragedy, turning a sad story into something a little more romantic and a little more exciting, with a nice happy ending and everything. The animation is absolutely superb, the musical numbers are memorable and fun, and the titular character is as empathetic and well-rounded as protagonists come. It’s a pity that these kinds of pictures are no longer being made —2D animation definitely has a charm of its own, allowing directors and scriptwriters to develop stories such as this one, in which fantasy and real-life history combine in order to convey a family-friendly message in a really entertaining way. I may feel a little nostalgia for the film, but even if you take that out of the equation, “Anastasia” works quite beautifully as a fun and emotional adventure.