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I love reading history. I have a copy of Tacitus’ Annals on my bedside table (because I’m just that kind of pretentious prick) and as a modern reader there’s something really bizarre about reading history written in ancient times.
See, you’ll be into a very serious passage about corruption in the Senate or the war against the Parthians (those Parthians, buncha troublemakers I tell ya what) and suddenly ol’ Tacitus will veer off into describing all the dire portents about Nero’s future rule and it’s all dreams of blood, and visions of locusts and more virgins giving birth to two-headed snakes than you know what to do with.
And then he’ll talk about taxes.
As if the previous stuff was just perfectly mundane. But here’s the thing; for Tacitus it was perfectly mundane. Magic and visions and miracles and supernatural powers were just an accepted fact of life back then. And as a modern reader, sure, we might be a bit sceptical but…we kinda just have to accept all that stuff as part of the historical record. Because Tacitus said it happened and he’s our guy on this stuff, you know? You going to call Tacitus a liar? Did you write one of the greatest works of Latin literature, serve in the Senate and later become governor of Asia?
Yeah. That’s what I thought.
It’s less impressive when you realise that “Asia” was just a chunk of Turkey back then.
Of course, when you start getting into more recent history, magic and mysticism aren’t part of the picture anymore. Or, at least, they’re not supposed to be.
I think that’s the reason I was always fascinated as a kid by Grigory Rasputin. Here was a twentieth century figure who seemed to come from a time when magic was still real. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Russian royal family had their own wizard.
That is awesome.
In secondary school I actually did my final year project on Rasputin and the Romanovs and I’m something of a buff on this whole period of Russian history. And that low sound you just heard is all the Anastasia fans (of which there are a great many) in the audience groaning “Oh God. He’s going to pan it.”
And sure. I can get why you might think that. I mean, if I tore Saving Mr Banks
a new one because PL Travers was crying for the wrong reason
, I’m probably not going to look too kindly on the February Revolution being started by zombie Rasputin. Or am I? Maybe not. Or maybe yes? Ha ha ha ha! Which door do you choose, Anastasia
fans?! Which door?!
“Ugh. Is this some kind of joke? I thought you were going to review one of my good films?”
“But…everyone loves Anastasia! It’s one of your most critically beloved movies! It made the most money of all of your films!”
“UGH. Yeah. And google it and see what comes up.”
Ooooh…that’s gotta hoirt.
“Fox asked me to make a Disney princess movie. I was desperate for the cash so I sold out. How was I supposed to make a good movie under those circumstances?”
I dunno Don. But I’ve seen where you can go with unfettered creative control and it often involves trolls and penguins with teeth. If it wasn’t for artists just doing it for a paycheck we wouldn’t have I, Claudius, Sherlock Holmes or half of Shakespeare’s stuff. Maybe, just maybe, you managed to make an accidental classic.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at Disney’s Anastasia.
Sorry. That just slipped out.
So the movie begins with a music box, rendered in the best late-nineties CGI money can buy.
Via narration, the Grand Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury) sets the scene for us. It’s Russia, 1916, and everything is just peachy as long as you happen to be related to the
Tzar Tsar Czar…
The dude with the beard.
During a ball to celebrate the Romanovs’ 300 years of total autocratic rule, Marie tells her grand-daughter Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst) that she has to leave for Paris but gives her a music box as a gift and a pendant with the words “together in Paris” engraved on it.
“Great idea. Cos there’s nothing going on in Europe that might make it dangerous to travel in 1916!”
“C’mon Dad, lets get you back to the nursing home.”
Suddenly the ball is interrupted by the arrival of Rasputin, HISTORY’S GREATEST MONSTER!
“You know master, that’s really not good for your teeth to be gritting like that.”
So this is a little familiar, no? A royal court is throwing a joyous celebration and then a shadowy magic user with a flying familiar who casts glowing green spells shows up and starts laying curses down because they’re pissed that they didn’t get an invite. I was tempted to bring the “you whore!” joke out of its cosy retirement in the resthome for clapped out running gags but then I remembered that Don Bluth actually worked on Sleeping Beauty, so if anyone has the right to homage Maleficent’s arrival so blatantly it’s probably him. I have….mixed feelings on the movie’s portrayal of Rasputin. I mean, however you slice it, this is pretty much outright slander. This was a real person, after all. And one who, while by no means perfect, genuinely loved the Romanovs and who saved the life of their son many times. But on the other hand, this kinda works. If you think of the movie as a fantastical retelling of the story, this Rasputin is really not so different from what many Russians at the time believed him to be, a cunning sorcerer in league with dark forces who was using the royal family for his own diabolical ends. Did Rasputin really curse the Romanovs and bring about the revolution that ended their lives? Of course not…but he was a major reason why those revolutions occurred. It’s definitely a case of printing the legend, not the truth. But there is some truth to the legend.
“So what I told you was true. From a certain point of view.”
Nicholas tells Rasputin to get out and Rasputin is all “I thought we were cool brah?” and Nicholas calls him a traitor. How he betrayed him is never said. Maybe by begging him not to go to war with Germany because it would mean the end of his 300 year dynasty and the death of his entire family? That monster. Nicholas banishes Rasputin and Rasputin says “No! I banish you!” and then invokes the dreaded power of no backsies.
Rasputin retreats to secret lair where he trades his soul for vast demonic power in a ceremony that involves getting his skin torn off.
Metal. As. Fuck.
Through Marie’s narration, we learn that Rasputin’s spell “fanned the spark of unhappiness in our country into a flame” and soon the palace is being stormed by angry communists.
“And so the tyranny of the Tsars is brought low by the might of the communist revolution!”
“You ever hear of someone called “Kerensky”, Crow?”
“Name does not ring bell.”
Bloody typical. Okay, let’s set this one straight. The communists did not overthrow the Romanovs any more than Jebediah Springfield tamed the legendary buffalo. The Romanovs were already overthrown, the communists simply shot them. It was Russia’s first democratic government which had actually done the hard work of ending the rule of the royal family which was then itself overthrown by Lenin a few months later. Anyway, Anastasia and Marie escape from the palace with the help of a kitchen boy named Dimitri who shows them a hidden exit and they run across a frozen lake. But Rasputin ambushes them from a bridge and tries to grab Anastasia but then the ice breaks and he sinks into the icy water and drowns. Ahem. Excuse me.
COME ON! Are you really going to do an evil wizard fantasy version of Rasputin and not include the most badass part of the real man’s life? Namely, how it ended? If you don’t know, in real life Rasputin was invited to tea by a relative of the Empress who had decided that he was too much of a threat to the royal family’s reputation and proceeded to poison him with enough cyanide to floor Godzilla, shoot him, beat him, chase him out into the snow, shoot him again and then dump his body in a frozen river. Oh, and the autopsy showed that he had water in his lungs, meaning that he was STILL ALIVE when he went into the water. Dude was a beardy terminator. Now, I’ve read that there was an earlier version of the script that had the assassination, and also had Rasputin believing that it was the Tsar who had ordered him killed and therefore cursing the Romanovs which honestly would have been a much stronger story but, anyway, let’s move on.
So Bluth decides to skip over the part where the Romanovs and their children are repeatedly shot, bayoneted and buried in shallow graves (pussy) and has Anastasia and Marie running for the last train out of Russia. Anastasia slips and bangs her head on the pavement as Marie watches from the train in horror. Marie solemnly tells us: “We never reached Paris. I never saw my grand-daughter again.”
Later, in Paris.
Yeah, I don’t know what happened there. Maybe they recorded that dialogue for an earlier draft of the script and couldn’t get Angela Lansbury back. Of course the other explanation is that the whole movie is just Marie’s fantasy of what might have happened if Anastasia somehow survived but that’s a little too dark even for me so let’s just move on.
So, ten years later in St Petersburg the locals are starting to realise that life under communist rule is complete ass (true) and that things were so much better under the Tsars (eeeeeeeeeh). The city is rife with rumours that one of the Romanovs might still be alive and might return them to the halcyon days of autocratic monarchy.
Something I never really got, incidentally. The final fate of the Grand Duchess Anastasia was one of the enduring legends of the 20th century, up there with the Bermuda Triangle and Bigfoot. But here’s the thing, the bodies of the Tsar and the Tsarina were recovered, along with the remains of three of their daughters (at the time presumed to be Maria, Olga and Tatiana) with no trace of Anastasia. What people often forget was, there was another missing Romanov child, Alexei, the Tsar’s only son. And considering that, if he had been alive, he would have been the heir to the Romanov dynasty and a vital figurehead of anti-communist resistance, I would have thought he would have been the focus of all the conspiracy theories.
“Ah but you’re forgetting. People love princesses.”
“But she wasn’t a princess. Russian monarchy doesn’t have princesses.”
“Well not anymore, obviously.”
In case anyone is wondering, incidentally, the mystery was solved a few years back. In 2007 archaeologists found the body of Alexei and one of his sisters, either Anastasia or Maria (they’re not really sure). Regardless, all the Romanovs are now accounted for.
Okay, so the people are furtively discussing the possible survival of Anastasia by…having a big song and dance number in the middle of St Peter’s Square. The songs in this movie are written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and I gotta say, if you’re comparing this movie to a typical Disney princess film…
If you were ever to do such a thing…
…they stack up pretty darn well. This song, A Rumor in St Petersburg, establishes two of our main characters, Dmitri, the servant boy from before who’s now all grown up and voiced by John Cusack, and Vlad (Kelsey Grammer) who I’m pretty sure is Papa Mouskevitz in human form.
Now Vlad and Dmitri are awful, awful people who are planning to find a girl they can pass off as Anastasia so that they can travel to Paris and hoodwink the grieving Marie out of a fortune in reward money. That’s pretty darn despicable. And they’re carrying out this immoral, illegal and (quite probably) treasonous act by…hiring out a theatre and holding public auditions. So I guess you could call them criminal amateurminds. Also, this sequence establishes something else, namely that HOLY SHIT BLUTH HAS UPPED HIS GAME! THIS IS GORGEOUS. We’ve got massive crowds dancing fluidly and flawlessly (if it’s CGI it sure as shoot don’t look like it) and the backgrounds are just jaw-droppingly beautiful. This is, hands down, the most smurges film I’ve seen that Don Bluth had a hand in that’s not called Sleeping Beauty.
No words…should have sent a poet…
Meanwhile, a red-headed girl called Anya (Meg Ryan) is being given the heave-ho from a Soviet orphanage and is told by the orphanege’s senior executive hag, Comrade Fleminkoff (heh) to head down the road and go left when she gets to a fork in the road which will take her to a factory where she can work for the next seventy years or so.
“Hmmm…left or right. Socialism, or FREEDOM?”
But Anya wants…more. See Anya ended up in the orphanage ten years ago having lost her memory and with only a pendant with the words “together in Paris” as a clue to her past. And because this is a movie that adheres so strictly to the Disney princess formula that it fooled the world’s pre-eminent search engine, she now sings an “I want” song called Journey to the Past. Honestly, I really like this song, and I think as “I want” songs go it’s better than some of Disney’s. I’d certainly listen to it over Reflection or Go the Distance and Liz Callaway (Anastasia’s singing voice) is good. Like, Jodi Benson good.
Anyway, she decides instead to go to Paris to learn about her past. On the way she meets a cute little puppy named OH GOD GURGI IT’S GURGI DEATH TO THE DEMON DEATH TO THE UNCLEAN ONE BRING FIRE AND MEN BRING FIRE AND MEN…
Sorry, sorry, false alarm.
Jeez Don. I know you’re trying to copy Disney, but you don’t have to copy ALL the Disney. This little furball is called Pooka and, unpleasant associations aside, he’s not all that objectionable. Like a lot of the Disney movies of this time, Anastasia has its fair share of Happy Meal bait but at least Pooka and Bartok are simply superfluous rather than obnoxious like, say, Flit and Meeko.
Anastasia arrives in St Petersburg and is told to seek out Dimitri if she wants a passport out of Russia. She goes searching for him in the abandoned winter palace which starts triggering memories of opulent balls and not caring about peasants. This leads to our big show stopper Once Upon a December. Callaway does fantastic work here again and there is some absolutely gorgeous hand drawn animation as the ghost of Tsars past emerge from the paintings and start dancing with Anya. But her reverie is abruptly broken when Dmitri comes in and angrily demands to know what she’s doing in his palace that he’s illegally squatting in. She explains that she needs to get to Paris and that she has no memory of her childhood and Dmitri, seeing that she has the blue eyes and faintly in-bred chin of the Romanovs, tells her that she might be Anastasia and invites her along to Paris so they can con some money out of a grieving old lady.
Because he is scum. Human cancer.
But enough of our heroes, what of our villain?
So Rasputin’s obligatory animal sidekick, Bartok the Bat (Hank Azaria), has just been chilling in the Winter Palace all these years guarding Rasputin’s reliquary, a cursed doo-dad that Rasputin traded his soul for to the “dark forces”. Upon hearing that Anastasia is still alive, the reliquary starts glowing and drags Bartok through a portal. It’s around here that Bluth eases up on the Disnified aesthetic and lets his freak flag fly. I’ve gotta say, this is an impressively weird visualisation of the afterlife. Bartok finds Rasputin, now a shambling, decrepit zombie, on a small planet that looks like it’s made of mashed lizard carcass and infested with billions of beetles that sing in impressive close harmony. Which, whatever else, is pretty original. Bartok tells Rasputin that Anastasia is still alive and this brings us to our villain song In the Dark of the Night.
I didn’t like this song originally but it’s really grown on me. It’s fun in a trashy, Phantom of the Opera kind of way and there’s plenty of fun little detail like the deep-voiced stag beetle who sings “DOOM HER”.
Dude’s like a beetle Barry White.
Rasputin as a villain wins me over because I’m a sucker for villains who have fun with their villainy and as Rasputin joyfully exults in all the evil he’s about to unleash (“Terror’s the LEAST I can do!”) it’s really hard not to get caught up in it. He swans around with the beetles and engages in a little cross dressing…
“Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.”
…before unleashing and army of demons to get Anastasia.
Oh, and we also see some girl beetles with weird headdresses and okay, back up. What is with Don Bluth and the female characters with headdresses? The pigeons in An American Tale,
the Angel poodles in All Dogs go to Heaven,
the beetles in Thumbelina..
. Why does he always do that? Did he fall in love with a dancer in Vegas and never got over her?
“Sigh. Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl.”
Anyway. Anya, Vlad and Dmitri are on a train heading out of Russia when the demons attack and start sabotaging the train. Anya and Dmitri MacGyver their way out of that while engaging in some patented nineties rom-com bickering.
“Well excuuuuuuuuse me Prin…Grand Duchess!”
They escape but the train is wrecked so they have to walk the rest of the way to Germany to get a bus. Yeah, this movie seems to think that Europe is roughly the area of a medium sized car park. We now see a map of Europe with a line showing our heroes’ progress. And considering how much ground they’re covering in mere seconds it would appear that Russian doping has been going on much longer than anyone realized. Also, Anya learns that Dmitri has been lying to her (I know, I’m as shocked as you are) and that before they can even get close enough to the Empress to catch a whiff of old lady smell they’ll have to convince her cousin Sophia that Anya is actually Anastasia. Anya is shocked because she thought she would just have to show up and everything would just be handed to her (truly she is a royal) and now realises she’s actually going to have to convince Sofia that she’s her cousin long thought dead. Which, you know, is an awful, awful thing to do.
We now get our next song, Learn To Do It, where Dmitri and Vlad teach Anya how to act like royalty and basically get her story down. I hate this song so damn much. The rhyming scheme is almost insultingly simple (they rhyme “fat” with “cat” for God’s sake) and the peppy up-tempo song can’t really mask the fact that this is three hardened criminals plotting to defraud a grieving old lady. Sorry, I know it seems like I’m harping on about this but it really bugs me. Also, it’s weird that the birds and other critters just flock to Anya. It’s like she’s so close to being a Disney princess she can even fool forest animals. That’s impressive.
The three board a boat and in the night Rasputin enters Anya’s dreams and shows her a vision of her father, brothers and sisters swimming in a lake. She sleepwalks up on deck and almost leaps off the side but is rescued by Dmitri at the very last minute.
Watching from his lair, Rasputin just loses it and starts choking himself and pushes his head inside his own ribcage and THEN OH GOD OH GOD DO NOT WANT.
Ahem. To clarify. That’s Rasputin’s head. Lying in a pool of blood. In his own ribcage.
There is so, so, so much wrong with this. Why is his ribcage suddenly so cavernous? Where are his lungs? What is his NECK ATTACHED TO?! This is some seriously messed up body horror right here! This is some David Cronenberg shit!
Bartok, who honestly seems like less of an evil minion and more of a court appointed life coach, tries to convince Rasputin to just pack it in and do something constructive with his unlife but Grigory’s having none of it and sets off Paris to just kill Anastasia himself.
Anya, Dmitri and Vlad meet with Sophie (Bernadette Peters) and when Sophie asks Anya how she escaped from the palace and she suddenly remembers a boy helping her through a secret passage way. Suddenly Dmitri realises that he was the one who saved her all those years ago and that maybe he’s not a complete waste of a human being after all. Sophie is convinced that Anya’s the real deal but says that Marie isn’t seeing anymore Anastasias because, you know, it’s killing her inside. But our plucky heroes will find a way!
At a ballet performance, Dmitri crashes Marie’s private box and pleads with her to see Anya for herself. But Marie turns him down cold, saying that she’s heard of him and how he was holding public auditions for Anastasias almost as if that was a really stupid thing to do. Anya is shocked to learn that Dmitri was trying to con Marie out of the reward money (yeeeeeeeah, no, not buying it, you knew what this was) and storms out. So Dmitri takes an…unorthodox approach to the problem, jumping Marie’s chauffeur and kidnapping the Dowager Empress of all the Russias and bringing her back to his place. He shows Marie the music box that he’s kept all these years, thereby convincing her that he really did work in the palace. Marie finally agrees to hear Anya out. Finally realising that this really is her long lost grand-daughter the two tearfully embrace and it’s all good, baby. Marie shows Anastasia a drawing that she made as a child, and Anastasia remembers how Olga said it looked like a pig riding a donkey. Nice little bit of trivia, the drawing they show is an actual drawing done by the real Anastasia. This one here:
You know what? Not bad. Not bad at all.
And her sister Olga really did say it looked like a pig riding a donkey. It’s little bits like this that makes me think that the movie’s historical inaccuracies aren’t simply a case of “they didn’t give a shit” because clearly they did do a lot of research. Another detail that sticks out is Rasputin’s repeated calls for cologne which is based in fact. He never bathed, and so to counter the smell he used to wear a load of cologne and everyone was like “Thanks Grichka, that makes it all better.”
Meanwhile, in Paris, they say, Dmitri’s soul grew two sizes that day and he turns down the reward money when Marie offers it to him, saying that what he wants she has no power to give. He says his goodbyes to Vlad and Anastasia and leaves. That night, Marie throws a ball to celebrate Anastasia’s return and she finds her looking out at the crowd as if searching for someone.
She tells Anastasia that Dmitri isn’t there and that he didn’t take the money. Marie realises that Anastasia is in love with Dmitri and tells her to go to him and to leave behind all this fabulous wealth because…fuck it, it’s love. Whaddyagonna do?
“But…couldn’t I just marry Dmitri and still be Grand Duchess?”
“Ha! Honey, our family includes Ivan the Terrible but even we have standards.”
Anastasia runs after Dmitri but suddenly she’s ambushed by Rasputin on a bridge who tells her that he was betrayed by “your despicable family!” (aw shit, Rasputin I think you’ve got an older draft of the script there) and tells her that he’s going to kill her.
Awwww…look how happy he looks!
Rasputin uses the reliquary to bring a nearby pegasus statue to life and attack Anastasia but Dmitri arrives in the nick of time to…get knocked unconscious almost immediately so Anastasia gets to actually defeat her own villain she knocks Rasputin on his ass and crushes the reliquary beneath her heel. This causes Rasputin’s friends on the other side to come collecting on their debt and strip him to the bone.
METAL. AS. FUCK.
And so our movie ends with Anastasia and Dmitri going off to together into the sunset to enjoy a life of quiet anonymity, because evidently Marie had everyone at that massive ball murdered because they knew too much. And everyone gets a happy ending. Even Bartok, who did literally nothing.
Here! Have a girl bat! And your own movie! You did nothing but you’re marketable!
“See, I told you it was ass.”
“Wow. What a naked attempt to cash in on the Disney princess formula.”
“I loved it!”
“Dont forget who you’re talking to. I LOVE the Disney princess movies!”
“But you’re a guy…”
“Yes, but I’m also a forest animal. Disney princesses just have that effect on us.”
See, while this movie is clearly aping the Disney princess movie formula, it does it really well. The animation is top notch, the main character is compelling, the songs balance out to be really good. If Disney had released this I think they could have been very proud of it. So yeah, Don. You made a movie that people routinely assume was created by the greatest American animation studio of all time. That’s kind of an achievement in and of itself.
Almost certainly the most beautiful film in Don Bluth’s filmography.
A lost Disney princess, appropriately enough.
A batshit performance from Christopher Lloyd, some pretty impressively grotesque character design and pretty awesome villain song makes for a great baddie.
Supporting Characters: 12/20
The movie has a pretty bad case of sidekick-itis but thankfully most of them are just superfluous rather than actively annoying.
A few duds here and there, but overall the songs are very strong.
FINAL SCORE: 76%
NEXT UPDATE: 16 November 2015. The big secret post I keep teasing so irritatingly will finally be going up. Thanks for your patience, guys.
NEXT REVIEW: 26 November 2015. We’re not done with Don Bluth as we look at his most beloved and acclaimed film. And, of course, it involves mice.
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger based in Dublin. The blog updates with a new review every second Thursday
. A new chapter from his novel, The Devil’s Heir
, posts every Saturday. Today’s review was made possible thanks to the kind donation of Samantha Doyle. Thanks Sam! Original artwork for this blog was commissioned from the oh-so talented Julie Android who you should definitely check out.