Table of Content
- Music and Musical
- Why Doesn’t Disney Sell Anastasia Merchandise?
- What Happened to Fox Animation Studios?
- Is Anastasia Historically Accurate?
It’s fair to call Anastasia (Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, 1997) a classic right? It’s well received, sitting at an 86% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 7.1/10 on IMDb. It holds a legacy as an Oscar nominated film and the historical feat of pioneering the “rich” history of the Fox Animation Studio… more on that later. The film has recently just become two decades old, and it hasn’t disappeared from relevancy. On the contrary, it just got adapted into a Broadway musical by the same team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens who earned the film its,
“Oscar nominations for Best Original Song (“Journey to the Past”) and for Best Music: Original Musical or Comedy Score” – Adam Hetrick Playbill
The film even a box-office success, earning a nearly a hundred forty million worldwide on an estimated fifty-million-dollar budget. Still, I just feel that despite the “success” of the film, this film garners the same amount of admiration as Disney’s more lackluster efforts such as Treasure Planet or Atlantis: the Lost Empire. That said why don’t we take a look and see if Anastasia has withstood the test of time.
Time to let the cat out of the bag… the first time I watched this movie was just a couple days ago. I feel like I have a vague recollection of watching like 10 minutes of it at school in the third grade. That said I have no real nostalgia for the film, so I come from a purely fresh standpoint. If I had to describe Anastasia, I would begrudgingly call it the Powerade movie. While I feel in saying this is kind of a “diss” but it clearly makes my point. I wouldn’t call it a knock-off, but it certainly could be called an imitation. Unlike other Disney competitors like DreamWorks and their films such as Shrek, Bluth and Fox Animation studios fail to present a unique identity for itself. However, I enjoy Powerade, it has all basic flavors of Gatorade, it’s typically cheaper and when it comes the distinction of taste it’s hard to distinguish. Overall, Anastasia is a solid film.
In the triangle theory of character development (my own personal theory that makes sense to me…) the dedication to developing a character is dependent on the run time of the movie and the shared focus placed upon other characters. More explicable to simple narratives such as Disney Princess movies, the triangle theory works for cases in which there’s three main characters. The sides represent typically the protagonist, the antagonist, and then the love-interest or sidekick of some sort. Choosing to focus upon one of these relationships or particular characters sacrifices the focus on the others. A scalene triangle is to have a more character driven story extreme example would be classic Mario Bros. in which both Peach and Bowser are both bookends as the games pretty much just focuses upon Mario’s adventure. Isosceles relationship triangles typically are either Conflict stories such as Sleeping Beauty ( Maleficent is a well defined Villain while Prince Phillip just is kind of there) or romance stories such as Tangled ( The story heavily focuses on Flynn and Rapunzel’s chemistry while Mother Gothel is a background presence). Rarely do film do an equilateral triangle, I think Hercules and Beauty and the Beast are good examples of this as it economically distributes time and development to each of these main characters.
So apply Character dynamic triangles to this film, I would consider it close to equilateral giving nearly the same focus to all characters with maybe the least being the villain. Anastasia (Meg Ryan/Liz Callaway) I thought was a fine character, Liz Callaway’s singing performance is a worthy rival to those of Disney Princesses, her motivations are clear, and she’s got a bit of spunk that seems more genuine human than marketable Princess of model behavior. My only complaint is the character is a little one note that I don’t think she’d carry the movie on her own which luckily, she doesn’t have to. Dmitri (John Cusack, Jonathan Dokuchitz) fills in for the more dynamic character arc but doesn’t really undergo a drastic transformation which was kind of refreshing. It feels that the story was trying to have this character go from a morally unjust character than because of the power of love does the right thing in the end. I never felt that Dmitri was really a jerk, he’s of course is motivated by completing a scam getting that cash flow but his personality is sort of blandly charming. I also felt this character had the misfortune of having to share a majority of his screen time with Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) who oddly enough kind of took away from him. He’s neither the early Disney Princes who was pretty much just some guy but essentially is Flynn Rider from Tangled except with less personality.
Ra-Ra Rasputin and Bartok
How does the mystic monk, with the voice talent of Christopher Lloyd and Tim Cummings not steal the show! They do a good job of channeling the real sinister stature of the real historical figure but also create this over the top goofy cartoon character, so it translates to a younger audience. Overall, it’s a great antagonist in terms of plotting as his dark powers are returning so his ability to cause havoc is increased as the story progresses, his body falling apart is cartoon-ish and gives something distinctive about him, and Bartok the albino bat that looks like a rat is able to counterbalance him and make his scenes less frightening for younger viewers. Ultimately Rasputin and Bartok are great at being serviceable, but it becomes sort of noticeable that their inclusion is to better appeal to the target demographic and give a big finale to the adventure.
I think it’s interested that in the Broadway musical they decided to remove him. It seems that when it came to the music team of Ahrens and Flaherty that there was some reluctance of having Rasputin in the original film. They way the talk about the character you can sense nothing but love for the character.
“What if Rasputin just rises from the dead and is accompanied by an albino bat!?” And at that moment in time you realize, “Oh, it’s gonna be that. It’s going to move over that way,” – Flaherty
“We really wanted to approach the show from a different musical vantage point: a little more sophisticated, more far-reaching, more political” – Ahrens
I’m conflicted, in that I would have imagined Rasputin’s underground limbo lair could have been something really cool to bring to the stage and “In The Dark of The Night” is a really fun villain song. However, I respect that creative liberties should be something taken in adapting materials and I agree with the decision to make this for a slightly more mature audience and while that worked well for a children’s cartoon there’s potential to do a great story in a different way.
Music and Musical
I kind of came in with the preconceived notion that “Once Upon A December” is the “big song” for this moving and the rest of them are going to be kind of forgettable. However, listening to the songs over I completely retract that, and I found that I would put a majority of the songs in a “good” column. I think the music all throughout captures the heart of journey wonderfully. Whether it’s “Journey to the Past” encompassing the desire to adventure, or “Paris holds the Key” showing the thrill of an exotic locations It’s fun and really keeps the fun going. Maybe the problem is that the soundtrack overall is fun in a one-noted kind of way, they all kind of build excitement that it doesn’t really create an emotional dynamic. The closest to a tone difference is the haunting nature to the beginning of “Once Upon a December”, but again the second half has such an uplift that doesn’t particularly range out enough to be a versatile composition.
To the credit to the musical adaption, it’s trying to invent a completely fresh vision. In the interview with Playbill, Ahrens and Flaherty revealed that the musical has 15 or 16 new songs being added. It’s an exciting proposal that this isn’t just a one for one translation but rather a team hoping to find the best way to bring the soul of Anastasia to the art form of theater and isn’t afraid to make artistic choices. I can’t claim to have seen the musical but from what I can tell it’s a more mature but still as whimsical tale that any fan of Anastasia should be excited to see the character get rejuvenated after all these years.
Why Doesn’t Disney Sell Anastasia Merchandise?
Have you ever noticed the jarring absence of Anastasia merchandise at your local Disney store… or lack of inclusion in the Disney Princess line? The answer is rather simple… Anastasia isn’t a Disney property…. Kinda why you don’t find Skittles in a pack of M & M’s. However, Disney recently required the rights to 21th Century Fox Entertainment’s film division which sort of makes Anastasia part of the Disney family. So, will Anastasia be more included in future Disney Merchandise? Probably not. I just don’t see Disney in the immediate future just inserting her into meet-n-greets at Disney World. However, I could see Disney who’s having fun bring back franchises in live-action which has strangely brought back Pete’s Dragon and Mary Poppins. So if Disney wanted to introduce Anastasia into the classification of a Disney film I could see them doing it that way. I definitely think they would stick to their library of films but if live action re-makes have long sustained success in a film industry that’s thriving on buzz of pre-production headlines… It’s possible.
Also, Anastasia Romanov isn’t a Princess but a Grand Duchess which is a way cooler title if you ask me.
What Happened to Fox Animation Studios?
Part of why Anastasia is an often-forgotten film is because it lacks being in a sort of “film collection” with a reserved fan base. Disney has a long list of films attached to the same legacy, but other people could consider themselves fans of DreamWorks and I’m sure the kids today will grow up for an appreciation of the Illumination movies. The history behind the movie Anastasia is just as interesting as the real-life Anastasia. Animation fanatics might be quick to point out that Don Bluth has a rich collection of movies to his name:
- An American Tail
- The Land Before Time
- All Dogs Go to Heaven
- The Pebble and the Penguin
- Dragon’s Lair (Video Game)
Just to name a few. However, Anastasia is the bastard child of this group as well for all the films above are Sullivan Bluth Studios. After Sullivan Bluth Studios went under, Bluth and Goldman then set up shop in Phoenix, Arizona to work for the Fox Animation Studio. Fox Animation started as the little animation studio in the desert that could, Anastasia was the studio’s first film and a moderate success there was no where to go but up, right? Well…no, in fact what happens next is nothing short of a massive implosion. The studio had the high expectations to:
“turn out a full-length feature every 18 months” in which the studio lived up to those expectations well… “a disastrous and costly six-year run that produced only two theatrical features”
Things where looking bleak which resulted in massive layoffs as the studio shrunk to the point that 2/3 of the staff was laid off prior to it’s closing. The studio released a direct to DVD sequel to Anastasia concentrated on Bartok the albino bat and soon would release the final nail in the coffin Titan A.E.. Titan A.E. was essentially:
“an expensive sci-fi flop, has grossed just $17 million after two weeks in release and is expected to lose Fox tens of millions of dollars”
With the turmoil of the studio, Bluth’s unofficial retirement, and the rise of 3-D computer animation, Fox decided to spent it’s money on a new studio more specialized to get with the times. Enter Bluesky animation
“a special effects and commercial production house [transitioning] into a feature film animation studio”
Bluesky is most known for the Ice Age Franchise, Rio, and most recently Ferdinand. In terms of a studio collection, Anastasia truly stands all alone. Ironically just like in the movie, Anastasia lacks having a true family and tries to find it in it’s audience. sad.
In terms of the style and overall look of the film, I personally thought it looked amazing. I like that Anastasia really doesn’t have an “iconic” dress but rather wears a varied wardrobe which is a fun concept and it feels less corporate to me. The overall design is to look more realistic than cartoon-ish, the character outlines are the perfect width in my opinion as in the characters standout from the background but don’t exactly seem detached from their surroundings as well. Speaking of the backgrounds, there are times when the art of Anastasia is gorgeous. I would say that personally, I thought the soft snow backgrounds especially the wide shot of St. Petersburg that punctuates “Journey to the Past” is beautiful. It makes every change of scenery remarkable from Paris-beautiful, Russian palace-beautiful, the rusty train-beautiful, boat-beautiful, underground limbo-cool.
However, when it comes to the animation… apparently the technique used is slightly controversial. Anastasia was made towards the end of traditional Cel.Animation. What is Cel animation, well Cels are:
“A cel is a sheet of transparent cellulose acetate used as a medium for painting animation frames. It is transparent so that it can be laid over other cels and/or a painted background, then photographed”
So this is notable as to why objects that character interact with don’t match the background is because they’re not on the same layer. Now with the cel being transparent if someone where to want to capture authentic human movements what if they were to use frames of actual filmed references?
Rotoscoping is a process which involves tracing stages of movement from live-action film, to attain a realistic motion in animation or visual effects.
“used to heighten or accentuate movement by imbuing it with a more life-like quality. Usually this is accomplished by first filming scene elements in live-action form, that mimic the intended movement within the animated film to be produced. Once filmed, say a scene with a couple dancing, animators trace off each frame, often in silhouette, and then “apply” this to their animated characters”
It’s interesting in that as I researched this it seems that Rotoscoping is slightly frowned upon among animators. The technique is arguably “Cheating” and lacks the overall design of “animating” or creating movement. I think overall, it’s a stylistic choice, if you want natural movements, it still isn’t necessarily easy to make a rotoscoped animated movie either, so I have no problem with it. Honestly, the principle of rotoscoping is still brought to the digital world through the modern use of motion capture. Given that Anastasia is rooted in reality , I appreciated the natural design and animation of the world and thought it looked rather nicely.
Is Anastasia Historically Accurate?
I understand the truth in which:
“The family was met by a group of executioners, who opened fire on Anastasia, her parents and siblings, a few of the family’s remaining servants and Anastasia’s pet dog. The Romanov legacy seemed to have been silenced forever in that cold basement in Yekaterinburg, Russia”
Would have made a less whimsical tale indeed. It’s crazy that they essentially made a children’s movie about a conspiracy. Could you imagine if in the future they made an animated movie where Hitler’s the antagonist after his escape to South America, or Kubrick filming the Moon landing footage or having to be the replacement for the original Avril Lavigne. Ultimately Anastasia and her survival is an interesting thought with some genuine mystery, that persisted throughout history.
“Anastasia’s fate was particularly prone to these conjectures, as a number of women claiming to be the grand duchess periodically surfaced. Among the best known of these women was Anna Anderson (aka Franziska Schanzkowska), who, beginning in the early 1920s fought to prove herself the rightful claimant of Anastasia’s inheritance. Anderson’s suit was rejected in 1970, and the mystery of the Grand Duchess Anastasia remained unsolved”
It’s almost a certainty with confirmed DNA tests that Anastasia did not survive the Bolshevik revolution but if The Life of Pi taught me anything it’s that, if I have to choose between a magical journey which a young girl travels across Europe reconnecting with her long lost family, meeting the love of her life, and surviving being hunted by creepy zombie wizard or a innocent 17 year old girl getting shot because of her Ancestry.com results… I know which one I prefer.
I’m embarrassed to say that if Anastasia was made today, that their would have to be some awful reference to this real incident of Anastasia taking a “selfie” back in 1913.
Oh those Russians.
What a wild ride this has been. I thought that I couldn’t make a post about this movie as I thought I didn’t have enough stuff to discuss but here where are. I hope that if you where looking for something in particular you got what you came here to see, if you where just read through than hope you found some of this interesting and If you read the entire thing than give yourself a big old pat on the back. If you liked this article I’d recommended posts like my first remember the classics on Duck Soup or my Samurai Jack review for those into animation. Down below will also be links so that you can get the full scoop on the topics and information I pulled in. Anyone who stopped by thank you very much, always appreciated.
And I’ll see you at the movies, Do svidaniya!
Images: Are from Anastasia [credit: Fox Animation/Disney??]