Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Anastasia (1997): A Review



It takes a deft touch to make an animated family musical film whose plot revolves around a political assassination that includes killing teens and children. Anastasia is a film that manages that balancing act exceptionally well, blending fantasy and history with strong musical numbers and even some cute animals.

Narrated in part by the Dowager Empress Marie (the late Angela Lansbury), we first see how beautiful the Czarist Imperial Court was until the evil sorcerer Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) put a curse on the Romanov family. Soon, the Imperial family is overthrown. In the chaos of the Romanovs fleeing, kitchen boy Dimitri helps the Dowager Empress and her youngest granddaughter Anastasia escape the palace, though the Empress loses her at the train station.

Ten years later, there's A Rumor in St. Petersburg that while the Romanov family has been executed, one of the daughters may still be alive. Two con artists, Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) and Dimitri (John Cusack) are looking for a  young woman who could pass as the Grand Duchess Anastasia. The Dowager Empress, now living in exile in Paris, has offered a massive reward to anyone who could genuinely prove herself as Anastasia.

Into this world comes Anya (Meg Ryan), an orphan who wants adventure and a Journey to the Past, to find her roots and family. She is, to Vladimir and Dimitri, the perfect impostor. However, is she an impostor? Could she be the real Anastasia, whose very name means "resurrection"? Rasputin, trapped in a netherworld, believes so. He, aided by his bat Bartok (Hank Azaria), plots to kill her before she reaches Paris. His plans are for naught, as the group has reached the City of Lights. While the Empress' cousin Sophie (Bernadette Peters) is convinced, will Anya prove herself the true daughter of the Czar? Will Dimitri and Anya admit their feelings? Will Rasputin succeed in his nefarious scheme?

The mind boggles at the idea that a story involving violent revolutions, frauds and wildly ahistorical flights of fancy can make for an almost charming musical. Anastasia, however, proves that it can be done. As Anastasia is geared towards families, we will not have an animated sequence of the Royal Family's execution. 

Instead, co-directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman blend various elements to create our story. You have the historic elements but you do not see the more graphic parts. To counterbalance the thoroughly evil Rasputin, you team him up with an almost adorable bat.

Granted, one wonders why Rasputin would rely on a creature like Bartok, but there it is. You also create, through both the animation and Lloyd's performance, a villain that is a mix of serious and silly. Yes, he is attempting to murder a young woman. However, he also is a bit of a bumbler who is quite literally falling apart. 

Anastasia opts to keep most of the focus off the potential fraud and sordid history. It does this by putting more focus on the romance between Anya and Dimitri. As the film continues, we see this shyster and the smart, plucky girl slowly fall in love. Like many a romance, they at first meeting think little of each other. However, we see how close they have grown.

This is aided by a whole slew of excellent songs. Journey to the Past, a lovely and strong number that speaks of Anya's longing for a family, was the one singled out for Oscar consideration. For my part, the slower, more contemplative Once Upon a December sung by Lansbury was the better song. Almost everyone in Anastasia gets a musical number. The big surprise is Rasputin's rock-like In the Dark of the Night, eerie and slightly comic. Purely comic is Paris Hold the Key (To Your Heart), a bouncy upbeat number that Peters sells to full effect.

Anastasia feels like a full-on Broadway musical with its songs, so it is no surprise that there was an actual Anastasia stage musical. The songs work so well and have such distinct styles that they work in moving the story forward.

The voice acting too is excellent. While Anastasia has well-known actors, they all seem perfectly cast for their roles. Ryan brings a plucky yet vulnerable heroine, lost but rising in courage. Cusack too has a shifty but loveable manner to Dimitri. Lansbury is caring but grand as the Dowager Empress, Grammer is likeable as the wise and surprisingly flirtatious Vladimir, and Peters (underused) is delightful as Princess Sophie.

Lloyd and Azaria work well as a double-act, the former's appropriately grandiose but comical wizard and the latter as the almost childlike bat.

Anastasia is an excellent film. Cute enough for kids (down to adorable dogs and bats), blending fact, fantasy, romance and adventure. With excellent songs and animation, Anastasia is funny, charming and even moving. Despite myself, I did get a little misty-eyed when Empress Marie and Anya reunite. It may not be history, but Anastasia is well-crafted and good for all ages.



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