Day 5 and 6 of Don Bluth: Anastasia and (one sentence on)Bartok the Magnificent
After sorting through some personal business, I’m finally ready to roll. Let’s do it!
Barely settled into his tax break-funded Phoenix studio, Don Bluth commenced work on Anastasia. Though jettisoning the idea of using Russian revolutionaries as villains, his film latched onto the conspiracy theories surrounding Tsar Nicholas II’s daughter Anastasia, who supposedly escaped execution. Infusing the Disney Renaissance formula into dark and thorny source material was not unheard of––by the time of Anastasia’s release, Disney itself had done the same with Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. And Don Bluth was comfortable with dark stories with strong supernatural overtones. For one reason or another, Anastasia was a financial success, perhaps the most confident and least pathetic Disney Renaissance imitator of the decade. Not to mention the only profitable product Don Bluth created between the years of 1990 and 2000.
1. The Red Elephant in the Room
I’ll make this brief. Bluth’s film, based on a script written by a troop of five writers, translates the overthrow of Czarist Russia and ascendence of the Russian Revolution into a fairy tale about the death of the true, beloved king and the self-actualization of the true heir. An early song notes that the people of post-revolutionary “St. Petersburg” (then renamed Leningrad) were sorry the tsar was dead and excited to hear that his daughter might have survived. And this is the least of the film’s desecrations, though perhaps the one that bothered me the most since it can’t be explained away by fairy tale logic.
I have no qualms with turning Rasputin into a devil-worshipping corpse warlock, especially one enlivened by the talents of Hollywood eccentric-in-residence Christopher Lloyd. Few historical figures are so generally reviled. But the sickening aura of American-style royalist nostalgia is too much to handle at times. And though this phenomenon is the stock-in-trade of other animated fairy tales, the fact that the monarchs here have some relation to real history makes it that much more pathetic and wince-inducing. Add the fact that Nicholas II and his family presided over a horrifying war of attrition and a virtual prison state for workers and oppressed nations makes me slightly less sympathetic to the plight of our bright-eyed protagonist. I’m sure an animated film about Marie Antoinette would take the same position. Silly people on the barricades! Royalism is all about beautiful music boxes, strong family values, and the gold filigree of feudal privilege.
2. Don Bluth Bingo
I don’t want to spend much time on reciting all the Don Bluth tropes recycled here. Instead, I’ll act like a clever internet person and just give you my Don Bluth bingo sheet for the movie. Refer back to earlier posts for this analysis, because my feelings on mystical keepsakes, nuclear family idol worship, and campy bad guys (meh, bad, good, respectively) have not changed.
3. Supernatural Limbo
While our main plot centres around two con men trying to make a princess out of an orphan lookalike, the core of what makes Anastasia worthy of any interest is far underground. Rasputin occupies a strange in-between dimension he calls Limbo, prevented from moving into the afterlife by his pact with Satanic forces. Sworn to eliminate every member of the Romanov family, he commands a legion of demonic bats (and one cute mascot bat) but is a shambling corpse himself. Most of the delight I get from the film is derived from the grisly body distortions the animators inflict on him. His mouth slides down his beard, his ligaments and tendons can stretch infinitely, and his head has its own ideas about where it’s supposed to rest.
His curse on Anastasia is not too dissimilar to that placed on Sleeping Beauty, sleeping in the dark until her adolescence before turning on her with a vengeance. Rasputin’s plans are, as expected, often too elaborate. Simply sending his demons to drop Anastasia off a cliff instead of sending them on a runaway train adventure would doubtless be more efficient. But Rasputin’s effectiveness as a villain is not just the sum of body horror and Christopher Lloyd. It hinges on one literally nightmarish scene where Rasputin uses his black magic to trick Anastasia into sleepwalking onto the deck of a ship during a storm and nearly succeeds in coaxing her into jumping. Further, the scene is effective because Anastasia––known as the amnesiac Anya the Orphan to all except the audience at this point––is shown to subsist on dreams. On visiting the boarded-up palace, she is swept away by visions of old ballroom dances, and one of the old standbys in family animated films is the beneficial aspect of dreaming and aspiration. The scene on the boat, however, uses her repressed memories and dreams of family life against her, luring her into a trap. It generates genuine tension in a film that often lacks it, and accomplishes this with effective animation sequences.
By contrast, the climactic battle on the bridge in Paris, despite evoking the same fear of drowning in the icy deep, falls flat because it’s just a physical confrontation that has little to do with the themes or dramatic stakes. Giant winged horses and topiary mazes can surely be frightening, and we’re supposed to link Anastasia’s triumph with her decision to save Dimitri, but his own appearance comes mostly out of nowhere and his faked Disney Death undermines that realization. It’s a far cry from the flat and lifeless romantic plots that underpin, say, Thumbelina and Pebble and the Penguin, but it’s one reason why the final part of the film spent in Paris is weak compared to the first half or so.
Finale: Into the New Millennium
Anastasia was such a strong success that Fox commissioned a direct-to-video sequel called Bartok the Magnificent, released two years later. It was directed by Don Bluth and is relatively enjoyable, but I won’t dedicate an entire post to it because it’s fairly trifling. I will say, however, that it’s superbly cast and surprised me with how entertaining it was, so I would give it a watch if you don’t find Hank Azaria’s performance as Bartok unbearable. Truth be told, I enjoy aspects of it more than Anastasia proper, which is not what I expected.
Now, though, we’re going to move into the stars. Bluth has shown an affinity for space imagery before, but he had no real interest in science fiction. That didn’t stop him from picking up his (at time of publication) final animated feature: Titan A.E., the flop that would put a premature end to Fox Animation and usher us directly into the age of Blue Sky Entertainment. We’ll see how that went tomorrow.