Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Remake Review: Anastasia (1956 / 1997)

By tryanmax
At the beginning of the Russian Civil War, Czar Nicholas II, along with his family, was assassinated by the Bolsheviks. However, there were rumors that his daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, had escaped. As years passed and rumors intensified, several women came forward claiming to be Anastasia. These rumors serve as the backstory for two very different films about the legendary princess.

The first film is a fairly straightforward historical drama, based loosely on the real life Anastasia-imposter Anna Anderson. The remake is a fantastic animated musical adventure designed to vie with Disney’s pantheon of princesses. If it is dubious that such a wildly divergent interpretation could be considered a remake, one need only look to the film credits where it claims a basis in the 1956 Arthur Laurents screenplay. Who am I to argue?
The Plot
It is ten years since the fall of the House of Romanov, and rumors of Anastasia’s survival are on everybody’s lips. It is in this atmosphere that a group of men intend to present an imposter to the Dowager Empress, Anastasia’s grandmother, in hopes of attaining a significant financial reward. The men take in a young vagrant woman bearing a resemblance to the princess in hopes of passing her off as the real thing. The woman suffers amnesia, affording convenient pretense for the conmen as well as legitimate questions about her true identity.

The woman agrees to join in the men’s ruse if only to gain an identity for herself. In the course of her Pygmalion-esque training, she becomes more and more convincing as the princess Anastasia, causing even her handlers to wonder if she could really be the lost heiress. At the same time, she and her instructor begin to fall for one another. Still, their relationship remains distant and strained, both knowing that if their ruse pays off, they cannot be together.

Anastasia ‘56
Driving the original is the ambiguousness about identity of the young woman called Anna. Is she the Romanov princess, or isn’t she? For the most part, Ingrid Bergman convincingly vacillates between doubt, confusion, and certainty over her identity as Anastasia. To pull it off, she starts her performance from a place of extreme vulnerability with occasional flashes of regality and moves toward a mostly confident demeanor, albeit with a grand chink in the form of needing acceptance from the Empress.
This ambiguity is never resolved. It comes to a head when Anna and the Empress (Helen Hayes) meet in a rather unconvincing scene where the Empress’ stubborn skepticism is suddenly broken by a peculiar mannerism of Anna’s. But even then, the old woman begs Anna, if she is not in fact the princess, to never tell her. And so the question hangs there and, although it is no longer a threat to her or anyone else’s plans, it remains a point of intrigue until the end.

Yul Brynner’s typically stoic performance as General Bounine makes for believable cynicism that Bergman can play against as she becomes more convinced of her identity as a Romanov. However, in all honesty, the same stoicism does not lend itself to portraying a budding romance between him and his pupil. Nor does it lend credence to his necessary change of mind about her identity. So, even though it is hinted at in various scenes, the romantic subplot feels like something of a surprise when one moment the two are sniping at one another and then next they are running off together.

There is no doubt that this is a high-quality film, with lavish sets and costumes galore in addition to the estimable talent. Bergman even won her second Academy Award for the role, though I don’t think she was as deserving here as she was on the other occasions. All the same, the moments of greatest anticipation never really pay off and the reason for the rather lengthy third act doesn’t become apparent until the final moments. I can’t help but think that a different actor in Brynner’s role could have clarified that.

Anastasia ‘97
In the remake, there are no doubts about the identity of Anastasia (voiced by Meg Ryan). Though she does not remember her past, the audience is clued in via prologue that she is, in fact, the real Anastasia. What’s more, she seems largely unfazed by her amnesia and from the outset displays an anachronistically feminist attitude typical of films from (but not limited to) the late 90s. In fact, this Anastasia doesn’t display a single moment of vulnerability in the entire film, robbing her of almost all of her emotional journey. That’s too high a price to pay to portray a “strong female character.”
Because of this, the eventual meeting with the Empress (Angela Lansbury) holds no anticipation or impact. Either it is a foregone conclusion that the Empress will recognize her granddaughter, or Anastasia will be self-assured enough to go one without recognition. The only saving grace is that the actual moment of recognition comes off a little more plausibly, perhaps because the rewrite included some props, i.e. physical evidence to bolster Anastasia’s claims.

Furthermore, since Anastasia doesn’t seem to care whether she is the real princess, the life is also sucked out of her interactions with Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer)—a splitting of the Bounine character. Their training is just a game and has no impact on her psyche, which isn’t fragile anyway. Finally, what the original romantic subplot lacked in believability, this one lacks in subtlety. That Anastasia and Dimitri fall in love is just another forgone conclusion.

Having neutered all the points of interest inherit in the story, it actually seems necessary to inject the evil undead villain Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his talking-bat sidekick, Bartok (Hank Azaria). Sadly, despite being added to increase kid-appeal, they just don’t make up for the aforementioned losses. Instead, they mainly serve as comic foils and an occasional excuse for some action. The bottom line is, this story was never suited to adaptation for children and the Rasputin character underlines the fact.
Final Thoughts
One tangential remark I feel compelled to make is that the 1956 live-action version, bereft of special effects and comic relief, is the faster-paced of the two films. Not only does it move at a better clip than the film that came 40 years later, it seems to move at a break-neck pace compared to most of its contemporaries. Still, I would only recommend the original if one is particularly interested in the Romanovs and the remake I would only suggest to animation buffs (like myself).

FYI: Andrew has asked me to contribute articles devoted to animated features, which I gladly intend to do. Strictly as an animated feature, there is much more to be said of 1997’s Anastasia, and I am inclined to revisit it as such. Stay tuned!

30 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Max; great job. I saw and loved the Yul version as a kid. I missed the animated remake altogether. It doesn't surprise they have neutered the original

tryanmax said...

Thanks for the kind words, TJ. The neutering isn't really a surprise as the remake was aimed at a completely different audience. The original story is driven in large part by subtle things. That simply doesn't translate to animation.

ScottDS said...

I haven't seen either film and I'm not even completely sure I was familiar with the backstory till I read it just now. Despite my ancestors being of Russian origin, Russian history is all Greek to me and I get the impression one can spend a lifetime studying it and never actually finish!

On a completely tangential note, I remember the line in Titanic, "...like that Russian chick, Anesthesia!" It's an odd coincidence since both films were released the same year and both were Fox productions.

(And now that I think of it, I swear Bartok got his own direct-to-video sequel.) :-)

K said...

Nice reviews Tryanmax. I'd like to see more animation reviews here. Cough, "Brave", cough.

As I recall, the "Anastasia" animated film wasn't all that clear on who murdered the Romanovs - the bad guy being Rasputin???. And it was acknowledged that Vladimir was a caricature of Vladidmir Lenin. Must not upset any communists in the audience.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks for an excellent article. I'll have more comments soon -- busy morning. :(

AndrewPrice said...

K, We're planning to start doing more animation stuff. We've only recently learned that people want more of that. :)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I'm a fan of Brynner though I haven't seen this film. I am aware of the history of the claim and I think it's interesting they danced around it but didn't resolve it in the film. I think a modern film would feel compelled to tell you definitely what they believed, whether or not that was good for the story.

I have seen the cartoon and I did not enjoyed it for the very reasons you mention. There is no mystery, there is no vulnerability. This is just a story about a slightly annoying woman claiming her birthright. And to me, that's ultimately not a great storyline. It lacked the kind of magic that princess stories normally have, it lacked the mystery of the real Anastasia story, and it lacked the happiness of a self-discovery story.

Doc Whoa said...

Excellent reviews tryanmax. I have seen both and I enjoyed the film, but not the cartoon really. I was expecting more from the cartoon, but it just seemed very flat and workmanlike, like they were just telling a simple story efficiently with no real attempt at making the story more interesting.

BIG MO said...

Thanks for highlighting these films. I'll have to see the '56 version, as I am a fan of historical dramas. I've long been aware of the animated story -- mainly via an annoying talking Bartok fast-food toy -- but never watched it. I'll have to give it whirl.

And count me among those who appreciate animation reviews.

BIG MO said...

Should have added that I never saw the '97 movie because it seemed boring.

tryanmax said...

Scott, I know what you mean. Russian stuff doesn't exactly trip my trigger. This is just one of those things that slipped through. I don't remember the Anastasia reference in Titanic, but given the surrounding facts, it very well could have been an Easter egg.

My copy of Anastasia is actually the $5-bin double feature which includes the Bartok movie. But I still haven't watched it.

tryanmax said...

K, Brave will probably have to wait until DVD release, but it does look interesting to me.

Yeah, the animated film does pretty much gloss over the fact that Anastasia's family was assassinated. They turn it into a curse brought upon them by Rasputin, which totally goes against history. Rasputin is probably one of the most slandered figures in history.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I am a fan of Brynner, too, and I don't mean to say he does a bad job here. But his demeanor doesn't facilitate the romantic subplot one bit. Bounine isn't an especially demanding role; almost anyone could step into it.

tryanmax said...

Doc, I think the animated version was designed primarily to go up against the Disney Princesses, and it shows. Don Bluth's own production company had faltered by this time and Fox scooped it up. Ironically, he lost all of the artistic freedom that he hoped to achieve by leaving Disney.

I fully intend to isolate Anastasia '97 strictly as an animated feature, so I don't want to say too much now, but I think what really makes this feature feel workmanlike as you put it is the wholly uninspired musical numbers. All the other shortcomings could possibly be forgiven if the film left you with a catchy tune.

tryanmax said...

MO, no problem! I'd say the '56 film is probably for you. I don't think the history is all that accurate, but it is a nicely appointed and rare 1920s period-piece that doesn't focus on nightclubs and flappers.

I think I had that Bartok toy you are talking about! I'm my own sort of animation buff--very narrowly into animated features--so I'm going to have a lot of fun putting out some more articles.

Anthony said...

I only saw the animated movie, but it didn't make much of an impression upon me.

The only thing I remember is thinking that the decaying Rasputin was a little gory for a villian in a kid's flick.

Of course, in comparison to some of the characters in later films like the Corpse Bride, Coraline and (judging by the trailers) ParaNorman and Frankenweenie, Rasputin is downright tame.

Individualist said...

Tyranmax

Very good comparison.
I often wonder why a woman acting "strong" as a man does is seen as better. It tends to suggest the traditional woman's role is somehow subordinant something I think is probablyu not entirely true. In my experience women are much more skilled than men in getting what they want.

LawHawkRFD said...

tryanmax: Nice comparisons. I loved the original, for all its flaws. I didn't see the cartoon version until my grandkids brought it over one day to keep themselves amused. I wasn't impressed. Even in cartoon form, I can't get past John Cusack. He was fine doing teenage angst, but hasn't improved since.

T-Rav said...

Okay, look, I've only seen the cartoon version, and I liked it, but I haven't really seen it since I was a kid. What can I say? I was impressed by talking bats. Although--yes, Scott, there was a sequel featuring Bartov, but I never watched it. Even as a child, I had my limits.

BevfromNYC said...

As a side note: Anna Anderson/Anastasia was later found through DNA evidence to not be a Romanov.

I just saw "Brave" and it is a lot of fun. I too has the new Disney "warrior princess" protagonist...

****spoiler alert****

and no unnecessary handsome prince to save the day.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Brynner does sometimes phone it in sadly.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, it seems like the standards are always changing for how "scary" a villian can be in a kids' movie. On the other hand, some kids are scared of the most unexpected things. My son was terrified by a Pinky the Safety Elephant coloring book. Go figure.

tryanmax said...

Indie, I don't think the problem was so much that they made Anastasia act like a man as much as they portrayed her as impervious from the outset. The girl has amnesia for crying out loud! A little vulnerability would have been more than appropriate. But adding up the release date of the movie, plus a couple instances of the line, "Men are such babies," and I can only conclude that it was decided even a moment of self-doubt wouldn't be sufficiently feminist. Too bad.

tryanmax said...

LawHawk, Some actors shouldn't ever do voice work, either. Cusack is one of those where his voice is so tied to his face that when he voices a cartoon, you just see him in spite of it. And I agree, he hasn't grown much as an actor over his entire career.

tryanmax said...

T-Rav, I make a point to avoid almost anything Direct to Video. Or, I guess, Direct to Disc these days. Heck, it's probably going to be Direct to Streaming pretty quick, here.

tryanmax said...

Bev, that was determined posthumously, I believe. Didn't she maintain that she was Anastasia until she died? But I don't believe the surviving Romanovs ever accepted her.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, maybe it has something to do with Anastasia coming out the same year as The King and I. There is a waltz scene in Anastasia where Brynner also barks out, "One, Two, Three! One, Two, Three!" which always gives me a laugh. Incidentally, The King and I was also remade as an animated feature released in 1999, though I don't know if I have the will-power to ever sit through that one again.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent reviews Tryanmax!

It's been awhile since I saw the '56 version but I do recal liking it, despite the inaccuracies.

However, much as I like Yul Brynner he did pretty much phone that one in.

The animated version, I thought, was boring. Our kids liked it but not as well as the other Disney cartoons.

tryanmax said...

Ben, though I mentioned it already, I still can't get over the pacing in each. Not only was I amazed at how brisk the '56 version was, especially given its era, I was appalled by how s-l-o-w the '97 version was. This in spite of a train crash, musical numbers, a talking bat, an evil sorcerer, and a fight scene at the end. I should have felt dragged along with all that in there, yet instead I was glancing at the clock.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, In yet another one of those ironies which keeps happening at the film site, the 1997 version of Anastasia was just on television.

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