History on film has always been a tough nut to crack. First, there are the facts to contend with. These rarely run conducive to the linear plot of a motion picture. Then there are the cast of characters from the historical record that inevitably have to be condensed and/or tweaked so there exists definite heroes and villains. Finally, there's the time line - stretching in reality often for decades or even centuries to be distilled and made sense of in two to three hours. Add to this mix a healthy sampling of actors' egos and creative license and voila! - history becomes...well...not quite as it was but as a screenwriter might have wanted it to be. All of these factual shortcomings are at play and compounded in Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s Anastasia (1997); easily, the most sumptuous non-Disney animated feature of the last twenty years – if not, in fact, of all time.
Taking its cue more from director Anitole Litvak's spectacular 1956 fairytale re-envisioning of history rather than the historical record, Bluth and Goldman's Anastasia further muddies the waters by becoming an animated musical. The poignant underscoring from composer David Newman and superb songs written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahren are all showstoppers. As such, the resulting movie plays very much like a grandiose Broadway show and this is as it should be. For the 1956 film, screenwriter Arthur Laurents capitalized on the real life legend of Anastasia, the girl who may or may not have escaped the fateful assassination of the Russian royal family in 1918. Then, the mystery surrounding the real Anastasia was further complicated by the fact that a woman named Anna Anderson - who had spent much of her adult life in and out of mental asylums - was claiming to be the last surviving heir of Tsar Nicholas II.
The Cold War in the U.S.S.R. precluded any real investigation of what had become of the Tsar and his family. But the 1994 discovery and exhumation of the royal's bodies that had been shot, burnt and buried in an unmarked grave in 1918 created even more of a stir, since neither Anastasia nor her brother, Alexei were among the remains. Since the execution and burial had been carried out in haste it makes no sense that their bodies should have been disposed of elsewhere. Although an exhumation of Anna Anderson's body and DNA testing in 2000 proved unequivocally that she was not Anastasia, the whereabouts of the real girl are an unsolved mystery to this day and likely to remain so. History’s loss – Hollywood’s gain.
As for the 1997 film, the narrative concocted by Susan Gautier and Bruce Graham is fanciful to say the least. A majestic prologue narrated by the Dowager Empress (voiced by Angela Lansbury) attempts to condense 500 years of Romanov history into less than eight minutes of screen time. It is most effective at setting up the villainy of Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), the mad monk and one time advisor to the royal family. Rasputin condemns the Tsar and his family at a grand ball. To simplify the narrative - and not frighten the kiddies too much - we are told that Rasputin used a magical reliquary to send his green goblin-esque minions to dismantle the monarchy. This spectacular fall of a dynasty is tempered by Rasputin's cute and cuddly sidekick, Bartok the Bat (voiced by Hank Azaria).
According to the historical record, Grigori Rasputin was a most bizarre individual. Ordained by the Orthodox church he was also a philandering scamp prone to all forms of human debauchery, and, a shameless self-promoter who claimed to possess mythical powers imbued in him by God. These he used on the Tsarina and on Alexei to supposedly 'cure' the young heir's hemophilia.
However, Rasputin's reputation prior to entering the Royal house did much to tarnish the Tsar's image, so much, in fact, that a secret assassination plot was hatched and carried out by Prince Youssoupov. Rasputin, who had always claimed that if any evil befell him his curse would destroy the Tsar, proved eerily on point when Vladimir Lenin and his party came into power. But back to the film; after the child princess is lost while trying to escape with the Dowager on a train out of St. Petersburg, the narrative jumps forward some ten years. Anja (voiced by Meg Ryan) is now an impoverished waif living in an orphanage. A blow to the head has erased all memory of her past, although she craves a mother and father and is compelled to journey to St. Petersburg in the hopes of finding them.
Instead, Anja falls prey to a couple of sympathetic con artists, Dimitri (John Cusak) and Vlad (Kelsey Grammar). They plan to take a girl – any girl - from the streets and train her in the royal customs - just enough to fool the Dowager Empress, who is an exile living in Paris, into bequeathing a handsome sum of money to her lost granddaughter. But this heartless ploy goes awry when Dimitri discovers that Anja is actually the girl they have been looking for, and more to the point, he has been in love with since his childhood days as a palace servant.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, Bartok has rediscovered Rasputin's reliquary and accidentally resurrects his old master from purgatory. Rasputin, who has lost none of his vim and vinegar for the Royal family is determined to murder the Tsar's last surviving heir. Part ghost/part walking corpse, Rasputin uses the powers of the reliquary to teleport himself to Paris where he plots the death of Anastasia.
Of course, this being a musical and a cartoon Rasputin's various attempts all come to not. After some sound advice from the Dowager, who eventually comes to believe that Anja is Anastasia, the girl realizes true love trumps a royal flush any day of the week. She chooses to abandon her crown and her title to pursue a romance with Dimitri instead, but not before a showdown with Rasputin puts a period to his life once and for all.
Those expecting a history lesson should seek it elsewhere. What this film does provide is a very lush tapestry in the best vein of Broadway to Hollywood hybrid musical offerings. Quite simply, it works: completely and charmingly. Buttressed by Bluth’s attention to detail and having his artists capture authenticity in their drawings, the film has flair and magic all its own, and is a success on every level, but mostly at striking the right chord in our hearts.
The fact that the real Anastasia's whereabouts remain unknown to this day gives at least partial plausibility to featherweight alternatives such as this one. And let's be honest...we all love a good fairytale. So, did Anastasia survive the fate of her family? Did she find happiness and love and safety in the arms of a handsome stranger? Did she endure and go on to live her life in peace? Well, it's the rumor, the legend and the mystery. Perhaps we'll never know. Then again, perhaps we never should.
Fox Home Video's Blu-ray captures the breathtaking art of animation in every detail. This a visually resplendent film that comes more regally to life in 1080p than ever before. Colors are bold, vibrant and eye-popping. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are very clean. This is a reference quality visual presentation. The audio remains in 5.1 Dolby Digital - its original theatrical presentation. While audiophiles will quip about the aural differences between 5.1 and 7.1 DTS, this audio presentation delivers an enveloping listening experience that, at times, really gives your speakers a work out.
Extras are all direct imports from Fox's previously released 2-disc DVD, and include an ill-timed sequel – Bartok the Magnificent (a tour de force for Hank Azaria, reprising his role as the loveable albino bat), an extensive look inside the making of the film, a sing-a-long, and several music videos. While virtually all of the extras are in 720i and prove to be less than visually satisfying, it's the presentation of the original film that deserves credit here. It's really quite stunning and comes highly recommended.
One final note: I am really not a fan of repurposed cover art for Blu-ray releases. If the original poster art was good enough to sell the film to audiences in theaters then why isn't it good enough to sell it to them on home video? Anastasia's Blu-ray cover art isn't the worst I've seen so far (that dubious honor belongs to Pleasantville) but it in no way compares to the amazing poster art produced at the time of the film's theatrical release - artwork that, in fact, was also used for Fox's first non-anamorphic release of the film on DVD in 1998.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)