If you are a young woman who was alive in the late 1990s, you probably saw Anastasia in theaters or owned the VHS. Based off the discredited theory that one daughter possibly escaped the July 1918 assassination of the Romanov family, this movie explores the journey of an amnesiac Anastasia-going the name Anya- as she travels with two con men, Dmitri and Vlad, to Paris. The trio travels there to meet with Anya’s paternal grandmother, the Dowager Empress in Paris while being pursued by the evil, undead Rasputin and his reliquary of evil minions. Now at this point, the average person, and primarily the Russian history scholar is shaking their head. However, this film, with the voice talent of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammar, Christopher Lloyd, Angela Lansbury, and Bernadette Peters, was well received upon its release twenty years ago and is still beloved by many of those who watched it. Many of us apparently realize that the plotline is historical fantasy, not historical fact. However, this scholar wanted to contribute to the Russian Revolution blog series. So, inspired by this Tumblr post, I will evaluate Anastasia for accuracy, but also analyze the reasoning for developing the film, and what messages it conveys about the period it is set in, and importantly the society in which the film was produced.
Historically, the Romanov family was imprisoned in February, overthrown that March and executed in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Their bodies were buried, with most being discovered in 1991, and the last two -those of a daughter and Alexei–being definitively discovered in 2007. However, in 1922, a woman named Anna Anderson came forward claiming to be Anastasia, and while she was disproven, the claims inspired a 1952 play by Marcelle Maurette, Anastasia, which was adapted for the screen by Twentieth Century Fox in 1956. This film, in turn, inspired the 1997 animated film, but work was needed to make it an exciting film for children. For some rough historical guidance, the film did hire three historical consultants, whose work might not be evident, but who names do appear in the end credits.
The film begins on an inaccuracy, having the family throwing a ball for the 300th Anniversary of their rule, in 1916, when it was 1913 when this happened, and having Anastasia be only eight years old when should have historically been 15 years old. However, these are considered minor as the two most significant criticisms on accuracy for the film are the treatment of the Russian Revolution and Rasputin, which interconnected. The first was noted by famed film critic Roger Ebert, who commented that the film skipped “blithely past the entire Russian Revolution.” New York Times reviewer Carey Goldberg, also noted that the film ““cracks a new level of historicity, using the tragedy of the murdered czarina as little more than a back story- the revolution is over by the time the opening credits roll.” The film’s approach to the Revolution is to have it be part of a curse by Rasputin after he is rejected by the Romanovs, which they never really did. In the film, we see little green ghost goblins helping Russians break open the palace gates, and its implied that the revolutionary forever is caused by, or at the least worsened by the curse. Additionally, the complete overthrow happens in a fortnight rather than being spread over a year and a half. However, there is a Communist government when the film shifts to 1926 based on costumes of background character’s clothing and, most notably, when Vlad, one of the main characters, comments: “That is what I hate about this government. Everything’s in red.” As this move was aimed primarily at children, one is left to wonder how exactly the whole revolution thing worked itself out.
While in life Rasputin remained a confidante to the family until his 1916 death, in the film he is an evil corpse stuck in a purgatory until he can kill Anastasia, a choice the filmmaker noted as something the had “to entirely make up,” Influenced by the idea that to a parent, “nothing is more frightening than a grown man going after a child.” He has a bat named Bartok as a sidekick because an animated movie usually needs a talking animal. Anastasia is the good, Rasputin is the evil, and he is vanquished at the end of the film, but at least gets one of the best villain songs, “ Dark of the Night.” The complexities of his actual role in the downfall of the Romanovs, which would involve phrases like debauched, rumors of affairs, hemophilia, and murder attempts by Romanov cousins are eschewed for a character more cartoonishly good and evil. The film’s plot cannot explicitly present history’s complexities with its catchy songs and dazzling animation aimed at children used to the same in Disney pictures, but implicitly opinions about Russia are there.
Anastasia and her sisters Olga, Tatiana, and Maria, 1917.
In 1997, the Soviet Union had broken up, and the new Russian Federation was beginning to take shape. Communism had failed, but the film seemed to imply, likely some of it for dramatic effect but also likely part of it stemming from the Western opinion that it would have been better for Russia if certain aspects had never happened, notably the assassination of the Romanovs. In the DVD feature “The Making of Anastasia” cast and creatives note how the family was “tragically killed.” While I disagree with the murder of the Romanov children, I can see how the new Bolshevik government would want to eliminate any direct claims to the throne. However, as it is a family film with a royal as the protagonist, the film aims to have you sympathize with the Romanovs. The scenes with the royals and their “enchanted world of elegant parties and grand parties” are filled with opulence and bright colors. The scenes with peasants need to be more muted and in the commentary on the song “Rumor in St. Petersburg, “director Don Bluth expressed a desire to have gone further with grayscales to convey the “oppression of that world.” Such an artistic style would have nicely paired with the line “Oh, since the revolution our lives have been so gray.” When the action switches to Paris, he and his co-director Gary Goldman note that these scenes are also vibrant and that during the 1920s “Russia was dying” while Europe and especially Paris was “coming alive.” In short, the film advances the straightforward narrative that West/capitalism is good, and Russia/Communism was bad.
The film also elects to portray Nicholas II mainly in the role of father since as the filmmaker’s note, he was “good father” but not a “really good leader.” Nicholas as a father is emphasized most in the song “Once Upon a December” when Anya/Anastasia dances in the palace ballroom accompanied by “figures dancing gracefully across her memory” with the crescendo being her dancing with her father the tsar, who gently kisses her on the forehead. However, the ghostly figures are aristocrats, so they do reverently separate and bow to the tsar so that he can reach his daughter. In the simple morality of a children’s film where finding your family and yourself and your family are the primary goals, the political impact of your father’s job can be glossed over.
Two years before this movie was released, Disney had released “Pocahontas” which also featured the use of a historical personage and the legend around them to sell tickets and merchandise. Perhaps Twentieth Century Fox was inspired this when they decided to develop Anastasia. However, given that Anastasia is set partially in Communist Russia, the merchandising aspect is even more humorous. If you look on eBay, you can buy a small figure or doll of the last autocrat of Russia! For transparency’s sake, I should say that I (or my sister) own several things, including the big-ticket item, a replica of the music box used in the film that plays “Once Upon a December” and retails for about 85-90 dollars. The reduction of an autocrat and his family to toys for a children’s movie is probably an offense to monarchists and proud Russians alike. However, the movie endeavors to entertain and make a great deal of money, so when it came to Anastasia, the Romanovs must be casualties of American capitalism, just as they were casualties in the making of a new Russia.
This blog entry, I am aware has gone rather long already, but I must address the most recent development in the Anastasia franchise, the new musical, also called “Anastasia” that is now playing on Broadway. The musical disposes of Rasputin and Bartok and in its place, asserts Playbill, has a “new script imbued with historic realism,” with the villain being a Communist general, Gleb, assigned to kill Anastasia by the Russian government, who views her as a threat to their regime. I know, not exactly correct either but the musical and its ticket sales are driven by the idea that people who liked the film will see it so it cannot have her be killed with her family, even if we now know that is what happened. Gleb’s father was involved in the shooting deaths of the Romanovs, and Gleb sings “my mother said he died of shame,” so it very much advances the notion that communism is bad, and Anastasia/the old Russia/the west is good. Thus, much like the film the show plays on the idea, noted in Goldberg’s review, that “the true power of the Anastasia myth has always been wishful thinking, the deep desire to undo the unspeakable bloody history of the Russian Revolution—at least in the person of one princess.” Most Russians do not share that desire I imagine, but maybe the West would have preferred the country to have become a massive but harmless constitutional monarchy rather than the goliath Soviet Union.
Anastasia remains one of my favorite films. Obviously, I know that it is very factually incorrect. From, watching it again for this blog article, I can see that it can be interpreted as pro-Romanov and is pro-capitalism and anti-Communist. However, I also feel that children who watch it will understand that it is not real, and might eventually learn the real story of what happened to the Romanovs. American society will take care of teaching the whole “Communism is bad, Capitalism is good” narrative, just as it has for decades. Anastasia is a Russian story told through an American filter, which is why it reflects western economic values in addition to universal ones on family and finding oneself. In the end, Anastasia teaches more about American society than the Russian Revolution, appealing to the heartstrings with the Broadway-style song-filled plight of a lost but pluck young woman, who just happens to royalty. The fair portrayal of history? No. Ingredients for an animated American Classic? Certainly.
 The voice cast is very much peak 1990s.
 I really watched the end credits to find this out. Also, if something is in quotes and not cited or linked, it means its from the movie itself, which I know verbatim parts.
 This is an incorrect title as Anastasia was a Grand Duchess, and her mother was the Czarina.
 “Commentary with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman,” Anastasia (Family Fun Edition), directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, (1997; Beverly Hills, California: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005) DVD.
 Ibid. The city would have been known as Leningrad at this point, but I guess St. Petersburg is more lyrical. The musical references this in their version of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” when one character notes that “The tsar’s St, Petersburg is now the people’s Leningrad!” and another responds “They can call it Leningrad, but it will always be Petersburg.”
 “The Making of Anastasia,” Anastasia (Family Fun Edition), directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, (1997; Beverly Hills, California: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005) DVD.
 It seems that Twentieth Century Fox may be bought by Disney, so will Anastasia join Pocahontas as a tragic, but marketable Disney Princess?
 Some of this merchandise might have been bought within the past decade.
 I have not seen this musical, but own the soundtrack, and might see the show in the future