It was only a matter of time.
Anastasia (Fox Animated Studios, 1997) is perhaps the last of the great princess movies, the final wave of which broke out in the ’90s. However, our family never got around to watching this film on its initial release in 1997, despite the fact that, in the past, we have seen the classic 90s movies like The Lion King and Thumbelina. But perhaps that was just as well, as otherwise I would probably not have appreciated Anastasia in a far different level.
Taken as a movie Anastasia only rates slightly above average. It has wonderful visuals, a great vocal cast (Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, and Angela Lansbury), and its catchy songs and quaint choreography recall Broadway. Besides these things, however, the film has little else to offer. The greater part of the movie is a melodramatic love story between a dashing con man and a princess with an amnesia–hardly something someone of my age and cynicism (a friend of mine calls it “cold-heartedness”) can relate to.
As a historical film Anastasia fares even worse. Despite the film acknowledging itself to be more of a fairy tale than history, historians have deplored over the terribly sanitized version of the actual events. Sure, put all the blame on Rasputin. Sure, minimize the Russian Revolution. Sure, romanticize the Romanovs. By doing so, however, Anastasia may mislead the younger audiences, providing them with a skewed framework of Russian history. And as we all know, a skewed knowledge of history gives birth to a skewed knowledge of a people and its culture. In this particular case, the audiences may think of the Russian Revolution as something of no great import (and for better or for worse, it actually is a landmark in Russian history), and that the Grand Duchess, canonized as a passion bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church, is nothing more than a bit of an over-romantic ditz.
And yet, though wanting in plot (and exceeding in animal friends and unnecessary spunk) and misleading in its representation of history, something in Anastasia compels the viewers, catches and commands their attention–at least, in the earlier part of the movie. I am referring, of course, to the scenes leading to and occurring in the song, “Once Upon a December.” Various people, from fans uploading the song in YouTube to my own sisters, have described it from “haunting” to “nakaka-iyak.” I personally cannot even begin to identify its characteristics, but only feel a certain chill as I watch the ghostly figures descend to the deserted hall, which in turn comes to life with bright orange light as pairs dance and waltz and blend into a painterly crowd as the Czar of all Russia walks down and kisses Anya’s head. For some reason, something in me snapped in that scene. It was as if, in that scene, I was watching a different movie altogether: something that is not part of that above-average Fox film, but rather, something truly touching, truly awe-inspiring, something great.
In Wikipedia, we find amateur historian Bob Atchison saying, “if 900,000 kids go to Anastasia and of that, 10,000 kids become really interested in Russian history and go on and find the truth and pursue it, it’s worth it.” For me, at least, “Once Upon a December” served as such an entry point. It did not only introduce me to Russian culture and history (of which I was, before, only data-versed), but also to a different perspective of history in general. What must history appear to be to those who found themselves its victims? The entire movie did not give me an answer; the song only provided me only with a glimpse. But it was that glimpse that turned things upside down.
In the end, Anastasia is the last great princess movie not because it is glittering, not because it is populated with a wonderful cast, not because it has cute musical numbers. It definitely has no extraordinarily engaging story, and it definitely does not stay true from history. But in spite of all its shining glitter, there, in the film’s earlier parts–and especially in that song–is the hint of darkness. And this darkness disturbs as well as captivates, and it unnerves as well as beckons us closer, closer, to see past the glamor, to look deeper, to feel deeper, to see history through a different lens.
Elsewhere I have said that it is this darkness, this which the 90s movies do not altogether shy away from, is what makes the animated films truly great. There is a dark undertone in The Lion King; even The Little Mermaid and Aladdin have something more to offer than the usual flat evil villain. (In their cases, forbidden love and class divides.) Perhaps this is what the latter movies lack. In the desire to accommodate more people, to be more politically correct, and to be more appropriate, the filmmakers have filled everything with light. And without the contrast, everything appears flat, everything appears too bright, and it stings our eyes. So, yes. Sanitize the movies. Take extraordinary amounts of creative license. But never remove the dark tones altogether.