Anastasia (1997)

I don’t choose every film I watch, and this was one my wife wanted to watch, so I’m going to keep this review fairly brief, as I confess I don’t have too much to say about it. I remember when I was a child really liking Don Bluth’s directorial debut The Secret of NIMH (1982) and watching it back-to-back several times one day, so I didn’t want to discount that this film 15 years on (and now over 15 years old itself) might be a good animated feature. And yet I feel a little disappointed by the result.

To a certain extent, I imagine some of my antipathy towards it comes with being somewhat older than I used to be. The animation is still beautifully clear, with little concession to changing trends in modern animation, though I recall one scene of Anastasia hurrying up a staircase that surprised me with an apparently unnecessary ‘crane shot’ (i.e. the film’s point of view mimicking a camera craning out and back). Other scenes integrate the ‘camerawork’ better, particularly some nice massed ball scenes in the Winter Palace near the start.

Where the film does follow trends is in its amalgam of action and song, as was the fashion in the popular Disney films of the 1990s. The music rather anchors it in its time period (when it was made, not when it’s set) and though the musical numbers aren’t too shabby, I still find myself a little underwhelmed.

And then there’s the history. Here I should mention the film’s plot — it follows the travails of the young Anastasia (voiced by Kirsten Dunst), Grand Duchess of the Imperial Russian family and daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, deposed by the 1917 Russian Revolution and executed. Almost ten years later, it transpires that Anastasia escaped but lost her memory and grew up in an orphanage as Anya (Meg Ryan). She meets a young man and con artist called Dimitri (John Cusack), who helps her to learn the truth about her identity and then aids her flight to Paris, where her grandmother lives and is offering a reward for Anastasia’s return.

It has now been definitively established (admittedly after the film was made) that Anastasia was shot with her family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, but the legend that she survived has been persistent throughout the century as a sort of aspirational folktale. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to get any sense of the political events of Russia in this period from this film. The chief antagonist is Christopher Lloyd’s mad monk Rasputin, and it’s his curse that spurs the Revolution so it seems. When Anya comes to light again, he continues to pursue her.

Obviously, one shouldn’t get too hung up on the history in this kind of animated fantasy musical, but nevertheless the very gap between history and folk legend presented here is so wide as to make it rather ridiculous. That said, I imagine the film will please plenty of people who are perhaps closer to the target demographic, and indeed its box office figures at the time were very healthy. If you are able to put aside the questionable history and embrace the film’s wayward romanticism, you may really like it. I’ll just be the grump in the corner on this one.

Directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman; Writers Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White and Eric Tuchman; Starring John Cusack, Meg Ryan, Kirsten Dunst, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 30 August 2013.