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  • Writer's pictureAlice Emanuel-Trinca

Once Upon a Don Bluth Masterpiece... A look back at Anastasia (1997)

Anastasia is truly timeless and even over 20 years after its release is still as magical as it was back then.

By the 1970’s Walt Disney Productions was in the throes of an identity crisis. While their animated films such as Robin Hood and The Rescuers were huge successes, their live-action ventures were disappointing in comparison and after turning down Star Wars the company was re-evaluating its entire movie-making ethos.

It’s unsurprising then that in 1979, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and fourteen other Disney animators defected from the house of mouse to establish a new company whose goal was to “restore animation to something better than it was.” Don Bluth productions would go on create such underrated triumphs as The Secret of N.I.M.H (1982), An American Tail (1986), and Thumbelina (1994). But of course one of its most fondly remembered, and famous Disney adjacent movies is the one and only- Anastasia.

Anastasia, released by Fox in 1997 (1998 in the UK) turned 23 years old in March of this year and while it has never enjoyed as much mainstream success as it’s Disney counterparts, it nevertheless boasts a hardcore cult fanbase that seems to be as in love just as much with the film now as they were back in 97.

Based (very loosely) on a story that is well over 100 years old, Anastasia’s core message of thriving in the face of adversity and never giving up on your dreams still rings true to this day. One thing that separates this film from most Princess based adventures is that Anastasia Romanov was indeed a real person and there were many conspiracy theories surrounding her throughout the 20th Century.

These rumours and conspiracy theories provide the main inspiration for the story. And though the historical inaccuracies aren't a hindrance to the film, I do recommend looking into the tragic and fascinating real-life history the events of this tale are based on.

The film opens in 1916, at the height of Imperial Russia. Tsar Nicholas and his family are the richest and most powerful family in Europe, and they are celebrating being in power for 300 years with a grand party. The Dowager Empress gives her youngest granddaughter Anastasia a music box and necklace inscribed with the words Together in Paris as a parting gift. The party, however, is interrupted by the mystic and former royal adviser Rasputin. Furious that he has been dismissed from the royal household, Rasputin curses Nicholas and his family and declares that they will die within two weeks (the real Rasputin predicted that upon his death, the Romanovs would be killed 15 months after).

The curse comes true in the form of the Russian revolution, as communist revolutionaries take the palace, and the royal family flees. While we don’t see what happens to the rest of the Romanovs, we see Anastasia and her grandmother escaping the palace through a secret passage with the help of a kitchen boy named Dimitri. Anastasia and her grandmother reach the train station but upon trying to board the train, Anastasia falls and hits her head, while the Empress watches, helpless.

The story takes us 10 years into the future and into a post-revolutionary St Petersburg. As demonstrated in the catchy Rumour in St Petersburg opening number, Russia is enthralled in the possibility that their Grand Duchess might still be alive. We discover that the Dowager Empress is offering 10 million roubles to whoever finds her granddaughter. This piques the interest of our dashing male lead Dimitri (John Cusack) and his friend Vlad (Kelsey Grammar), who plan to find a girl who could pass for Anastasia so they can collect the reward money. The two begin auditioning girls but to no avail.

Meanwhile, Anastasia, now called Anya (Meg Ryan) is clearly suffering from amnesia and is leaving the orphanage she has been living in since she was a child. Faced with an uncertain future, she resolves to follow her dreams and go to Paris to find her family. In St Petersburg, she finds herself at the Winter Palace, with what follows being one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs and sequences in animated history.

Once Upon a December sang by Liz Calloway sees the old Winter Palace ballroom returned to its former glittering glory as we witness Anya’s forgotten memories stirred into life in a stunning dream sequence, that rivals and surpasses any Menken/Howard ballad.

Suddenly, Anya is confronted by Dimitri and Vlad, who upon noticing the resemblance between Anya and the Grand Duchess convince her to join them on a trip to Paris where they will introduce her to the Dowager Empress, potentially reuniting her with her long lost family...

But Anastasia’s return to the palace starts a chain of events she is completely unaware of. The curse that destroyed her family is reawakened and we are transported to Limbo where Rasputin has been trapped because his curse remains unfulfilled. The hilariously caricatured Rasputin determined to finish what he started in 1916, vows to kill the last of the Romanovs. Enter, one of the best villain songs in cinematic history- In the Dark of The Night. It's not the most popular song on the soundtrack, but it perfectly pairs the film's darker themes with some much-needed comedy as it sees Rasputin release his minions to fulfil their dark purpose.

But unfortunately for Rasputin, as the film progresses, we see plan after plan foiled and Russia’s greatest love machine starts to (literally) fall apart. After failing to hypnotise Anya into jumping to her death, Rasputin resolves that he must kill her himself in person, and his companion Bartok delivers one of the film's most iconic lines: "Forget the girl and get a life!"

Of-course Rasputin does not listen.

By this time, Anya and her friends have made it to Paris and after convincing the Dowager Empress' cousin Sophie that she is the genuine article, the gang get ready to meet the Empress at the Russian ballet. By now, Dimitri has also realised that he won’t be introducing an imposter. He knows Anya is the real Grand Duchess Anastasia as he is the boy who helped her escape the palace all those years ago.

It is also obvious by now to the audience and to Vlad that he has completely fallen for her. Despite his feelings, Dimitri is determined that the plan will go ahead as if nothing has changed as ‘Princesses don’t marry kitchen boys.’ As he attempts to convince the Empress that he has found her granddaughter and the heir to the Russian throne, Anya overhears that The Empress knows who Dimitri is and more importantly knows that he is a conman that has been auditioning girls to pose as Anastasia. Anya is understandably furious and after giving Dimitri an epic slap, she leaves.

But Dimitri isn’t ready to give up and even goes as far as to hijack the Empress' car. He shows her the music box and she finally agrees to meet Anya. The Empress remains unconvinced until Anya’s memory is triggered by the smell of peppermint, and upon seeing the music box, remembers the lullaby her grandmother used to sing to her. The two are reunited at last.

The next day, we see The Empress offer Dimitri the reward, which he refuses (as if we needed another reason to love him). We also witness the emotionally charged goodbye between the two as Dimitri prepares to leave. That night at the ball being thrown to celebrate Anastasia’s return, the Empress reveals that Dimitri didn’t take the reward money. The Empress also wonders whether returning to a life of royalty is what Anya truly wants. She tells her that no matter what she chooses, they will always have each other.

Anya is lured away from the party and out into the gardens, where Rasputin is waiting for her. He and his minions attempt to kill her; however, our dashing hero returns to save her. After an intense battle that almost sees the end of our beloved couple, Anya gains the upper hand, and she destroys Rasputin using his own dark forces against him. This is the second time Rasputin has died in this film and this time it is gruesome enough to rival that of even The Horned King in The Black Cauldron.

So, the heir to the Russian throne is found, the bad guy is defeated, and the guy gets the girl, it’s the perfect ending…Or the perfect beginning?

It is also worth noting that its recent stage adaptation enjoyed tremendous success on Broadway albeit with a slightly altered story.

Anastasia is truly timeless and even over 20 years after its release is still as magical as it was back then.

Very few animated films manage to pair history and fiction, darkness and romance so perfectly. With the combined artistry of Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and the musical talents of David Newman, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and of-course the star-studded cast, 20th Century Fox succeeded in creating one of the most enchanting, haunting, and captivating animated films of all time.

Do you remember Anastasia, do you love it just as much? Check it out currently streaming on Netflix and let us know what you think down below or on our socials!


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#Anastasia #DonBluth #Animation #90s #OnceUponaDecemeber

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