Animated movies have gained adherents and popularity ever since Mickey Mouse and Sleeping Beauty entered stage center. In recent years, their appeal has surged to an all time peak with both children and adults. Indeed, in recent months, films such as Antz and Toy Story deliberately sought adult audiences sometimes to the surprise and alarm of parents accompanying their children to the theater. In this new approach to animation, some films are definitely not for children. Of those that are, Anastasia is an unusual cartoon feature, combining animation and history in a new light. According to children, ages 5 to 8, Anastasia is great. It is funny, exciting, and the music is "cool." The graphics and details are exceptionally vivid (i.e. the bugs on the dead guy) but not terrifying to the young. (The bat side kick, Batuan, comes across as "too cute" for children and may actually make adults gag, but that is a small price to pay for a suitable child's film). Parents can recommend this movie to their family without much hesitation and could even use it for historical discussion with their children. In an era when there are not many true family movies without violence or sex, and finding anything simply rated "G" can be difficult, this movie works.
Although Anastasia was criticized when it appeared for not dealing accurately with such monumental issues as the Bolshevik Revolution or the rise of Communism, that is a heavy handed reproach for a generally fine fantasy film. In viewing such films as adults, parents sometimes tend to expect more than a child's film can or should provide. Moreover, many parents apply their adult standards of criticism to works that need a different base of analysis. To argue the pros and cons of Communism in a child's film is rather like stirring an omelet with a sledge hammer. For young audiences, the message often is simply the entertainment. Yet such a film can provide parents with an ideal platform for interaction and discussion with their children that goes way beyond a child's belief that all dreams do come true if you just try. Anastasia does offer such opportunities, ranging from the simple to the complicated.
For example, one of the inaccuracies of the film involves the age of the heroine. The cartoon Anastasia is eight years old in 1916 at the time of the Russian Revolution. The real Anastasia was born in June of 1901, thus, she would have been 15 years old in 1916. On the other hand, the portrait of the cartoon Anastasia in the film resembles known portraits of the real Anastasia. Czar Nicholas II, the Czarina, the Dowager Empress and the evil genius of the royal family, Rasputin, are all well drawn as are the painstaking costumes which sumptuously reflect the fashions of the World War I era.
Central to the film as he was to the Romanov dynasty, the character, Rasputin, is shown at the beginning of the film placing a curse on the Romanov Family, which brings about the death of the entire family, except for the Dowager Empress and Anastasia. Interestingly enough, according to Robert Massie in his famous 1967 work, Nicholas and Alexandra, from which an excellent film was made, Rasputin did warn the Czarina that if any harm came to him, the entire family would be cursed. In reality, Rasputin, was a mad monk of the Russian Greek Orthodox Church, whose disreputable role in government as well as in the private life of the royal family created a scandal throughout Russia and certainly contributed to the Romanov destruction. The historical characteristics and themes are all well presented in the film and certainly any child can understand the portrayal of Rasputin as an evil wizard.
Less historically accurate is the insertion of Dimitri and Vladimar, two fictional con men who try to find an impostor (Anastasia) in order to collect a ten million ruble reward offered by the Dowager Empress for the return of the real Anastasia. Undoubtedly, the movie relies here on the story of Anna Anderson, who in the 1920's was believed by many to be the real Anastasia. A German court found her to be a Polish peasant girl with merely a strong physical resemblance to Anastasia. Recent DNA testing seems to clearly refute any possible family connection to the real Anastasia or to the Romanov family, although for Anderson supporters, Peter Kurth's 1985 book, Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, remains a popular and tantalizing study.
Another discrepancy occurs in the reunion, which is set in Paris, between Anastasia and the Dowager Empress. This was done apparently to scenically capture Paris in the 1920's while in actuality the real Dowager Empress escaped to and lived in Denmark. Nevertheless, introducing the young to the beauties of Paris is not the worst thing that can happen to them in a fictionalized fantasy.
Perhaps the most difficult historical aspect of the film is the difference between the appropriate fantasy ending when Anastasia finds the Dowager Empress, is accepted, and lives happily ever after, and a parent's knowledge of what really happened. For very young children, to stop at the last waltz is appropriate; for older children, the film offers an opportunity to discuss the issues, at whatever suitable level, of the realities of revolution, and even of the tragedy of death. As a result, the film offers what many parents want from children's films which is not merely simple entertainment, but rather an opportunity for historical and philosophical dialogue that opens avenues of family communication. The mystery of Anastasia Romanov's short life, cruel death, and surviving spirit, will always be tragic, but in this film, fittingly, it serves a useful purpose.
For parents, reading Robert Massie's, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, which was hailed as "Riveting," "Masterful," and a "Masterpiece of Investigative Reporting" when it appeared in 1996 will prove rewarding, and might even lead to a rereading of his 1967, richly textured, Nicholas and Alexandra.
For children between eight and twelve, or indeed for adults, Shelley Tanaka, et al, have produced Anastasia's Album, published in 1996. It is beautifully designed and photographed, both literate and sad. Charmingly and imaginatively, it contrasts the loving opulence of the royal family with the increasing pressures of war and social tension. Yet, it does not shirk the ugly end of Anastasia's short life, which it treats with brevity, dignity and compassion. Anastasia's Album may prove a bridge to the next level of learning beyond fantasy. Moreover, both parents and children could move on to the new and elegant photographs in Royal Russia: From the James Blair Lovell Archive by Carol Townsend and James Blair Lovell or to a beautiful but serious coffee table book edited by A. N. Bokhanov, The Romanovs: Love, Power, and Tragedy.