Culture > Movies

Film: Fox Disnifies history

Movies | Anastasia: Russian Revolution without the bloodbath

Issue: "Washington Gets One Right," Dec. 6, 1997

Anastasia is a perfect example of the fallacy of the words "based on a true story." In perfect faux-Disney style, one of the most malign periods of history becomes a cartoon fairytale. 20th Century Fox took the Pocahontas route in its effort to break the Magic Kingdom's monopoly on animated blockbusters. The heir to the Romanov dynasty--who was actually brutally murdered with her whole royal family by the communist revolutionaries--survives and is morphed into a doe-eyed, perky All-American girl with Meg Ryan's voice. The basic theme is identical to this summer's Hercules: The heir to the throne loses everything because of an evil spell and finds love and adventure trying to get Home. That's Home with a capital H. Since these movies must appeal to the lowest common denominator, they can only touch the most generic chords. We all want to get Home--a globocult heaven of perfect parents, pretty clothes, and the dreamlike wonder of Harburg's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." It's the place where every mundane problem melts away and everybody knows your name. Before she heads Home, Anastasia grows up as a poor orphan with no memory of living in the Soviet Union. She decides she doesn't like peasant life, so she tries to find a way to get to Paris so she can find her family and be where she belongs. She runs into a palace kitchen boy turned con man named Dimitri (John Cusack) and his sidekick (Kelsey Grammar) who want to use her as a fake heiress to swindle a reward from the dowager empress Grandma (Angela Lansbury with a bad Russian accent). The trio escape Russia and head for Paris for the grand reunion. Anastasia even gets a cute little puppy to play with as they flee the Soviet Union. The Russian Revolution is dropped down the memory hole. The whole thing was started not by Lenin but by Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), who sold his soul to destroy the Romanov family. There's no communism, no secret police, no death camps. Anastasia's Russia is a stock cartoon Old World society with stock cartoon Old World people. Hansel and Gretel could live up the block. Anastasia herself is a poor orphan, yet she's amazingly well-dressed, her hair never falls out of place, and she speaks with an American accent. Her nemesis is a back-from-the-dead Rasputin who wants to kill her before she gets Home. His bumbling sidekick is a talking bat with a Scandinavian accent borrowed from Fargo. Plus there's a bad soundtrack of weak showtunes and soft rock love songs (including one produced by Michael Omartian) to add just the right touch of over-commercialism. As kids' fare, this isn't bad, since the slaughter of the Czar's family, considered Christian martyrs by the Orthodox church, has been sanitized. Filmmakers Don Bluth and Gary Goldman made The Rescuers and Pete's Dragon for Disney before breaking off to make movies like An American Tale, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven for other studios. Visually, the film mixes big-budget animation with the return of Cinemascope's widescreen splash. Except for the few minutes when Anastasia tries to be a gussied-up version of the 1956 Yul Brynner/Ingrid Bergman film, this movie succeeds. Even so, grown-ups with half a sense of history may have a hard time suspending disbelief. Try imagining The Sound of Music without Nazis and you have this movie.

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