20 Movies 20 Years Later

‘Anastasia’ Took Liberty With History To Give Us An Early Modern Take On The Princess Trope

“Anastasia” turns 20 this year.

20 Movies 20 Years Later remembers and explores the films that touched us back then and still resonate today. Join A Plus as we rewatch movies released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions to pop culture.

What do you get when you combine ex-Disney guys, a bit of Russian history, and an all-star cast? 1997's Anastasia, that's what. This film stands out among other animated movies both before it and after it for its loose retelling of the legend surrounding the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, and providing a creative take on the Disney Princesses trope. Having considered Anastasia a classic since its release — I was 6 at the time and have probably seen it a dozen or so times — there are reasons why this take on the myth stands the test of time.

The flick opens with Rasputin cursing the Romanov family, resulting in the Russian Revolution and the end of the tsardom/czardom. Nicholas II's mother, Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, and youngest daughter, 8-year-old Anastasia, are the only ones to survive — though they were tragically separated. Fast-forward 10 years and we find Anya, an 18-year-old amnesiac orphan, who, along with a stray dog named Pooka, sets out to discover her history and whoever she might get to call family. Anya — who unknowingly is the grand duchess herself — joins up with two con artists, Dimitri and Vlad, who have set their sights on Paris to use a look-alike of Anastasia to collect a hefty prize from the dowager empress. All the while, Rasputin will stop at nothing to kill Anastasia and end the Romanov line forever. It's a story about self-discovery, overcoming all odds to find one's true self, and treasuring love as well as family.

There had already been a few live-action versions of this story. One was a film directed by Anatole Litvak in 1956 — which was based on an earlier-written play by Marcelle Maurette — and starred Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes. The other was a 1986 made-for-TV movie titled Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, which was directed by Marvin J. Chomsky, and starred Amy Irvin, Rex Harrison, Olivia de Havilland, Omar Sharif, Christian Bale, and Jan Niklas. The former may have snagged some Oscar attention — a win for Bergman and a nom for its original score — but so did the oft-beloved animated follow-up which, while it tends to be a bit forgotten in the pop culture zeitgeist (less so than other incarnations), is still relevant now in 2017.

Who made it and who’s in it?

Anastasia was directed by both Don Bluth and Gary Goldman — who also teamed up to direct All Dogs Go to Heaven, Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, and A Troll in Central Park, The Pebble and the Penguin, and Titan A.E. — in addition to having both worked with Disney in the past. This was the first feature from the short-lived Fox Animation Studios (a division of 20th Century Fox Animation).

The cast consisted of Meg Ryan as Anya/Anastasia, John Cusack as Dimitri, Kelsey Grammer as Vlad, Christopher Lloyd as Rasputin, Hank Azaria as Bartok (Rasputin's albino bat sidekick), and Angela Lansbury as the dowager empress. Ryan already had starred in the likes of When Harry Met Sally ... and Sleepless in Seattle while Cusack was really having quite the year with Grosse Pointe Blank, Con Air, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil all coming out in 1997. At this point, Grammer, Azaria, and Lansbury were already well-established with the Back to the Future franchise, The Simpsons TV series, and everything under the sun — respectively.

While the speaking roles were filled by major names, the cast who provided the vocals should be acknowledged as well. Liz Callaway provided the singing voice for adult Anya/Anastasia — with Lacey Chabert (of Mean Girls fame) singing as the 8-year-old Anastasia (who was voiced by Kirsten Dunst). The rest of the singing cast saw Jonathan Dokuchitz for Dimitri and Jim Cummings for Rasputin. More on the music later.

Fact versus fiction.

For this animated film, it's important to draw a line between the events that happen in the movie and what happened in real life. The entire Romanov family were murdered at Yekaterinburg on July 17, 1918. Anastasia was 17 at the time. The bodies of the last Russian royal family were mostly unearthed in 1991 — with some discovered in 2007. Historians have proved that, while there are many false reports that she survived, the grand duchess died alongside her family. There have been several women who have claimed to be Anastasia, with a woman named Anna Anderson being perhaps the most famous imposter.

Anastasia was apparently received quite well in Russia despite its fantastical approach to the country's history — as it's clear they used the Romanov story as a jumping off point and the other 99 percent of the movie is made up. Gemini Films, the company who distributed the film in Russia, made sure to let the population know it wasn't attempting to be historically accurate and was just meant to be a fun flick to enjoy. That said, some were upset due to the canonization of Anastasia in the Russian Orthodox Church and historians were a whole other story.

A New York Times article quotes a man named Bob Atchison — who is described as a Russian history enthusiast — as saying Anastasia is comparable to someone making a movie where "Anne Frank moves to Orlando and opens a crocodile farm with a guy named Mort." Suzanne Massie, an author of books on Russia, said it was important to have Russian history presented accurately because "it has been so falsified for so many years." That said, this piece also points out that these people also had to come to grips with the fact that a film like this is likely to inspire some to look up what actually happened themselves while, yes, some — and perhaps most — might consider this a factual retelling.

How it was received at the time.

The cartoon was made on a budget of $53 million, according to Fortune, and brought in nearly $140 million worldwide — making it a box office success. While historians were looking at it with certain eyes, critics latched onto it. Rotten Tomatoes has it sitting at an 85 percent approval with 44 out of 51 reviews ensuring its "fresh" rating. The critics' consensus there reads: "Beautiful animation, an affable take on Russian history, and strong voice performances." Famed movie reviewer Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, calling it "entertaining and sometimes exciting."

There was a lot of comparison to Disney who, at the time, was nearing the end of what has come to be known as the Disney Renaissance. There have actually been two periods of creative blossoming and success for Disney, the first being from 1989 to 1999 — giving us, among others, movies such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King — and from 2006 to the present day — giving us, among others, films such as Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana. The fact that Anastasia was even competing with these films and did well is a testament to how great it is.

Its success was enough to immediately spawn Anastasia On Ice as well as a spin-off prequel titled Bartok the Magnificent, which focused on everyone's favorite albino bat.

The so-so soundtrack with two important songs.

While the cast, animation, and story of Anastasia is already enough to write home about, we cannot forget the soundtrack by famed composer David Newman. There are really just two hits here to discuss with "Journey to the Past" and "Once Upon a December" — though I love "A Rumor in St. Petersburg" and "In the Dark of the Night," too. 

These songs both hold emotional weight in the story — with the former being a song Anastasia sings about the journey of self-discovery and the latter being a tune that connects the grand duchess and the dowager empress as grandmother and granddaughter. Both were nominated at the 1998 Golden Globes, with "Journey to the Past" also snagging a nomination at the 1998 Academy Awards. It lost at these major ceremonies as Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic dominated that year and swept up all the accolades.

While Callaway performed both tunes for the film, the non-movie versions had superstar power attached to them. Contemporary R&B singer Aaliyah took on "Journey to the Past" while country music's own Deana Carter took on "Once Upon a December." Given the fact that "Journey to the Past" was nominated for an Oscar, Aaliyah got to take to the stage and perform.

Check out these two songs, both how they appeared in Anastasia and how they sounded with Aaliyah and Carter taking a stab at them:

"Journey to the Past" — Movie Version

"Journey to the Past" — Aaliyah Version

"Once Upon a December" — Movie Version

"Once Upon a December" — Deana Carter Version

Why it matters 20 years later.

As mentioned before, there's something about Anastasia that sets it apart from the trope of Disney Princesses. Anastasia doesn't need to change herself to please a love interest and Dimitri, who originally has ulterior motives, changes himself to become more worthy of Anastasia's desire. Anastasia sets out not to find a man to change her life but to discover more about who she is and to find the family she has always dreamed of. Anastasia, being an actual figure, lives somewhere between the fictional world and reality, combining history and myth.

Anastasia seems less glamorous than other animated films similar to it — despite the fact that there is a depiction of Russian royalty. Perhaps the reason for this is just how dark the story is, made so by Rasputin's quest to see the entire Romanov line dead. There's a constant threat of danger following Anastasia, Dimitri, and Vlad as they make their way across Europe, and the presence of Rasputin and the otherworldly creatures who serve their master can be quite frightening. This isn't just a Disney villain, it's pure evil.

While there hadn't been much on the Anastasia front since the late '90s, a stage musical based on it was workshopped in 2015, premiered in Hartford in 2016, and made its way to Broadway in 2017. The best songs from the cartoon are still here — along with a ton of others — and it went on to be nominated for two Tony Awards in 2017.

Anastasia is available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, and YouTube.

Cover image: 20th Century Fox

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