Anastasia: The Film, The Musical and my Undying Love

I saw on the internet a few days ago that Anastasia was celebrating its 20th anniversary of its release, and low and behold it was! The film was released in November 1997 and is my favourite animated film ever, and possibly even my favourite film in general. I completely an utterly adore it and if you haven’t seen it, please please please find the time to. Take a break from this article and go watch it right now (which may be a good idea as you need a little bit of context to understand also I do give away some spoilers) It’s on Netflix and if you need someone to watch it with/ give you a live commentary and tell you loads of really cool facts about it I am your gal. So, I thought in honour of its 20th birthday (By the way making it older than me, something I did NOT realise) I would take a moment to talk about the film I have loved throughout my life, as well as talk about the Broadway musical it has been adapted into. So, sit back, put your slippers on and get ready for what is going to be another Classic Polly blog where I get very excited.

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It follows the story the Grand Duchess Anastasia which claims that she escaped her execution along with the rest of her family and wound up in an orphanage remembering nothing about her past as a royal. She leaves the orphanage to try and make herself a new life and winds up meeting Dimitri,  a conman who, together with his friend Vlad, is trying to find a suitable girl to play the role of Anastasia, so they can travel to Paris and trick the Empress into thinking they have found her daughter, claim the reward money and get out of dodge (and out of Russia) He meets Anya accidentally, and she bears a striking likeness to the lost princess (Spoiler alert, because she is the lost Anastasia) and they convince her that she is Anastasia and to come with them. Since she can’t remember who she is and the only remnant of her family that she has is a necklace reading “Together in Paris” (that is actually a key to a music box given to her by her grandmother) she strikes a deal with the two and they start on their adventure, only to be challenged along the way by the sorcerer Rasputin who is bent on upholding the Romanov curse and killing her. I won’t go into the whole plot, but it’s very feel good. After all the one thing Anya wants is to have a family, something which Dimitri and Vlad manage to give her. And that’s just nice

This film is a Don Bluth film, directed and produced by the man. I absolutely adore the films that bear Don Bluths name. They are really staples of my childhood and I still watch them very fondly. Some of the films that I’m talking about are Thumbelina, The Pebble and the Penguin and The Land before Time. Really lovely kid’s films that are animated beautifully and have really nice stories. Speaking of animation. An interesting little fact about the animation in this movie is that it was actually done by rotoscoping. If you don’t know what that is, it’s basically a technique whereby you film live actors doing the movements and then trace over the frames to create the animation. This means that the animation is very realistic, very flowy and just gorgeous.

I’ve said it so many times already, but I absolutely adore this film. It is truly wonderful, and I have watched it too many times for me to count accurately. I’m not too sure why I like it so much if I’m honest. It’s nothing all that different. It’s a standard story of going on an adventure, with the guy and the girl hating each other at the beginning then ending with them falling in love. But it just makes me so happy. None of it seems forced and its naturally moves from one scene to another. The writing is good, and the bad guy is excellent. Rasputin is quite scary as a villain and fuel for more than a few of my nightmares when I was a kid. It’s quite light hearted with a lot of serious undertones. And of course, Dimitri and Anya are wonderful characters. Their relationship and its progression is really lovely and one that I fall for time and time again. I like the history element to it too. Being a history graduate with a degree in the subject, I love things that have historical background and when popular media is inspired by true stories. Yes, the writers of Anastasia took a lot of artistic liberties with the story and the story is very factual, it is still centred around one of the greeted rumours of the twentieth century, where by people truly thought she may have escaped her death as her body was never found at the time. Several women claimed to be Anastasia in real life, the most notorious being Anna Anderson. And there are some things which did happen in rea life; Anastasia really was given a music box by the empress, the drawings and paintings that are used are almost all real and exist in real life and a servant named Dimitri did try and save Anastasia during the siege. Its fiction, sure, but its intertwined with fact which just makes it pure magic to watch.

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This brings us to the other thing I want to talk about, the films recent adaptation into a Broadway musical. This was very exciting to me when I found out as I adore musicals and I (obviously) adore Anastasia, so put the two together you’ve got one happy Polly. It features several new songs and a fair few plot changes to make it suitable for the stage. While I will go into the changes in a bit more detail later, it should be noted that the characters switch from screen to stage has translated pretty well. Derek Klena, who’s previous stage credits include Dogfight (which might be my favourite musical) and Wicked, plays Dimitri, still a lovable conman but the show managed to flesh him out a bit and give us slightly more insight into his backstory. His song is him telling Anya how he came to be who he is and is really fun to sing. Klena plays the character very well, and honestly, I’m not sure how but he looks exactly like his animated counterpart, which is great, and he has a spectacular voice and is complemented wonderfully by John Bolton, who plays Dimitri’s his partner in crime Vlad Popov. Vlad is an absolutely hilarious character, with lots of sass and excellent comedic timing, having some of the funniest lines that made me chuckle Vlad has a slightly bigger role in the show, and similarly to Dimitri we get a bigger insight to his backstory and his character before the events of the show took place. The pair of them accompanies by Christy Altomare who plays Anya/Anastasia, who’s character is virtually the same as it was in the film, if not a tad bit more stubborn but every bit as resourceful and a great leading lady.

My major love of the cast aside, let’s talk about some of the differences between the 1997 film and the 2017 musical. Firstly, it’s totally me being dumb, but until I watched the musical I didn’t realise that the film is about the Russian revolution. Like I knew the Russian revolution happened and during it the Romanovs were all killed, and Saint Petersburg was changed to Leningrad etc, but the revolution and the film, for some reason, in my brain just didn’t click together. I’d imagine that the full extent of the coup and its repercussions (which are touched on in the song A Rumour in Saint Petersburg but aren’t a running theme) were left out of the animated film as it is very much aimed at kids, and it wasn’t exactly and incredibly nice event in Russian history. When starting to research the film Bluth and Gary Goldman have stated that they thought the true history of the Romanov Dynasty was too dark, and the inclusion of the Bolsheviks would have given the film a too political tone to be aimed at families. But in the musical, it is made very apparent that the revolution happened and definitely takes a more serious tone when it comes to it, featuring a lot more of the difficulties the ordinary Russian people faced, and the Bolsheviks being a real threat to Anya and their plans to leave Russia to find her Grandmother in Paris. This leads me to the most significant change of the film, that the villain is no longer Rasputin. The sorcerer in the film is implied to have caused the revolution using his black magic to infect the minds of the people against the Romanovs as he swore revenge against the Tsar and his family. This is not the case in the musical as the main antagonist to the story is now a Bolshevik general Gleb Vaganov. This is an interesting change as it removes all the supernatural and magic from the story, which was a huge part of the animated film. It does make sense that they have gone for what is definitely a more realistic telling of the story, with the fear and intimidation coming from Russian soldiers and the fear of being shot instead of the supernatural and magical antics of Rasputin. However, it does mean that some of the charm is kind of lost of the story, don’t get me wrong it’s still good but having no magic in it changes the whole dynamic of the piece and changes a lot of points in the film. The most exciting points of the film were the parts where Rasputin sent his little magic demons he’d sold his soul for after Anya; for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, there is a very dramatic scene where the demons sabotage their train and many other moments of danger that drive the film forward. It also kind of changes Anya and Dimitris love story, in that the majority of their bonding came from saving each other from these life-threatening situations created by Rasputin. Without them, their relationship on stage, in comparison, does seem just a tad forced. They do replace it with other things, but it’s not quite as exciting as Dimitri saving Anya from falling off a ship into the sea.

The lack of magic also renders the musical anti-climactic. Instead of the big end fight scene in the film where Rasputin tries to kill Anya by collapsing the massive bridge she’s standing on, with Dimitri running back just in the nick of time to try and save her. In the musical, Gleb waves a gun in her face for ten minutes until she talks him down and he lets her go, I think because he’s fallen in love with her (Which is just weird and unnecessary). There’s no big fight, there’s no sassy Dimitri. Just gun then no gun. Boo.

I guess that’s what I’m most mad about, that Dimitri doesn’t come back. After he’s seen Anya be accepted by her grandmother he leaves her be, sad that he can’t be with her because she’s essentially a princess and he’s a nobody. In the film, reminded of her by a rose in his pocket, he comes back to the palace whilst she’s in the middle of this stand off and saves her, getting knocked out in the process with Anya thinking he’s dead. In the musical this doesn’t happen. He goes off nobly but then continues to lick his wounds. Anastasia has to go find him, which is still impressive as her knowledge of the Parisian train system can’t be very good. There was just something romantic (and cliché) about the culmination of their relationship in the film, which is just a little bit disappointing to not see it played out on stage, the perfect place for romantic clichés.

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One of the other main differences between the film and the musical is how Dimitri and Anya met. And not how they met as adults and started out on their adventure to Paris, no its about how they met when they were kids. A major plot point in the film is that up until about half way through, Dimitri doesn’t think Anya is Anastasia, that he’s playing her as much as he plans to play her grandmother in order to get his pay day. But he realises that in fact, she is the lost Anastasia when she talks about how she escaped from the palace siege. Dimitri worked as a kitchen boy in the palace, and when the young Anastasia and her grandmother became trapped in a room about to be taken by soldiers, he opened a secret passage in a wall and helped them through. Anya remembers this, leading to the revelation that she is Anastasia, something which us as audience members knew the whole time. In the musical however, this is very different. Dimitri never worked in the palace and was just your standard urchin. He saw the young Princess Anastasia in a parade and bowed to her, a story that’s revealed during the song “In a Crowd of Thousands”.

There are a lot of other plot changes of course, we get to see a lot more of The Empresses cousin, whose name has been changed to Lily, and there’s no Bartok the bat or Pukka the dog. Also, there’s no necklace. At the beginning of the film the Empress gives Anastasia a necklace inscribed with the words “Together in Paris” the pendant works as a key for the music box, a big reason as to why the empress finally believes that Anastasia is her granddaughter as Anastasia remembers the music boxes song. But in the musical, no necklace. Just the box. Which is fine I guess, but still it would have been nice and wouldn’t have taken long to integrate the necklace into the new plot.

I didn’t quite mean for this blog to turn into an English essay, but I got carried away so here we are. As much as I have nit-picked, the musical is still excellent, and I really enjoy listening to it etc. Sure, it’s a little long, the hubristic director in me could see so many places where cuts could have been made, scenes that didn’t really need to be there and slowed the pace down. The 16 new songs are just wonderful, really fitting in with the soundtrack already in place and giving other characters their moment to shine. My favourite is Quartet at the Ballet, which is basically just audio drama. It melds together lots of melodies from previous songs as well as blending it with Tchaikovsky’s ballet with gorgeous harmonies and just wonderfulness.

But let’s be real, at the end of the day, Anastasia the animated film is always going to one my absolute favourite and always going to have a place in my heart. I really adore it, to the extent where I have a replica of Anastasia’s necklace that I wear regularly. And I really want the music box too (The exist but I have yet to find one to buy – yes, I’m that sad.) Ultimately, it’s just a good story, one that I will never get tired of watching.

Originally posted on Very British Nerds


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