When Anastasia opened on this day twenty years ago, it made headlines for two reasons. The first–and perhaps more tired to read about at the time–was that it was taking a prominent figure from history and making her the subject of an animated fairy tale, leading to one article after another condemning the film in the same manner Pocahontas had been two years prior. But the real reason the movie became notable was that it was a healthy money-maker at the box office…and it didn’t even need the Disney banner attached to it in order to do so.
Now if you weren’t alive when Anastasia came out, or aren’t old enough to have seen it while it was in theaters, allow me to try to express how important that was. The 90’s were a terrific time for feature animation, so long as Disney was the studio releasing the movie in question, giving birth to pop culture classics like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and a little film called The Lion King. Even often overlooked films like the darker Hunchback of Notre Dame and the aforementioned Pocahontas were still bringing in a decent profit. But if an animated movie came out and the Mouse House wasn’t behind it, not only was it not going to be a hit, it was going to be a savage bomb. Don Bluth, the director of Anastasia who had been able to compete with Disney and survive during the 80’s with An American Tail and The Land Before Time, saw one film of his after another flunk with both critics and audiences, whether it was Thumbelina ($11 million total gross), The Pebble and the Penguin ($3.9 million) or especially A Troll in Central Park (which made–wait for it–only $71,000 over the course of its entire run). The live-action/animated The Pagemaster found itself losing to the re-release of The Lion King (which Disney issued the same year it came out!) despite the presence of Macaulay Culkin and heavy marketing from Fox. Even the films that were genuinely good ended up flopping, with the now-beloved Balto failing to make any form of a financial impact. The highest grossing non-Disney animated film of all time when Anastasia was released? Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. Seriously.
Another thing I can’t stress enough is this: when I was growing up, there were very few animated movies that came out during a single year. Compared to today, when you tend to have at least one a month, the average number during the 90’s was around 3 or 4. The only other animated movies to open in 1997 apart from Anastasia were Hercules, Cats Don’t Dance (total gross: $3.5 million), and Disney’s re-release of The Little Mermaid, which probably by no coincidence opened only one week before Anastasia’s wide release. The Mouse House was apparently pretty worried about Anastasia, and more or less attempted to sabotage its launch, with their Robin Williams family comedy Flubber opening just five days later. It wasn’t enough to kill it, though, as Anastasia went on to gross $139 million worldwide, making it the most successful movie of Bluth’s career.
So what made Anastasia different? Why did it succeed where so many other films had failed miserably? One chief reason might be that Fox went all out with the marketing, treating the movie like an event as opposed to another Disney wannabe cash grab. Toys and books flooded store shelves, FAO Schwartz had the film grace the cover of their annual Christmas catalog, and Burger King had a promotion which was largely aimed towards boys…something Disney notably didn’t do much at the time with their so-called “Princess films.”
Another thing that set the movie apart from similar oness at the time was its ambition. Anastasia was the first (and sadly one of the last) films to come from Fox’s brand new in-house animation studio. Bluth, who preferred to work independently, was brought aboard along with Gary Goldman as a director-for-hire, raising a few eyebrows at the time as he had come off of a series of recent flops and was also said to not always be an easy man to work with (Bluth was so furious with MGM executives over how they handled The Pebble and the Penguin that he disowned the film entirely and demanded his name be removed from the credits). Perhaps as a result of this, there aren’t terribly many things in Anastasia which feel like “pure Bluth,” with one exception: the character of the villainous sorcerer Rasputin. A decaying man stuck in limbo after his untimely death, with a friendly talking bat and an army of singing insects at his disposal, Rasputin’s scenes have Bluth indulging in the creepy and bizarre stuff he loved bringing to his earlier work. This is probably never more evident than during a moment in which Rasputin, who is stressing out over having failed to kill Anastasia yet again, recluses himself by dunking his own head into his throat and resting it inside his inner fluids (as an aside, Anastasia is rated G).
Apart from Rasputin’s antics, though, the most surprising thing about looking back at Anastasia today might be how “adult” it is. Sure, there’s the cute dog Pooka and Bartok the bat (voiced by a hilarious Hank Azaria) to keep the kids happy, but the majority of the humor found in the film is the screwball comedy-style banter between Anastasia (known as “Anya” for the majority of the story) and the charming con man Dimitri. One thing that blew me away as a kid was that the two of them strongly disliked each other before they inevitably kissed at the end of the movie, and while this has become the norm in even animated romances today, it wasn’t that way in animated films at the time (Jasmine and Aladdin fell in love almost immediately, and Thumbelina agreed to marry her prince mere minutes after meeting him, to provide just two examples). And at the end of the day, whenever Anya isn’t battling Rasputin’s many supernatural (and often scary) attempts to assassinate her, Anastasia is more or less a very grounded film during the majority of its 93 minute running time, telling the very personal story of a girl who simply wants to know she is. Anastasia is by no means an accurate history lesson, yet it nevertheless feels authentic, rooting itself in emotions which everyone can relate to (and yes, I am assuming anyone who’s reading this has seen the movie, which is why I haven’t provided an elaborate plot summary).
Yet one thing that really may have helped Anastasia out at the time, as strange as it may sound, was the release of Disney’s Hercules earlier that year. Though it was still a hit, the Greek epic comedy became the first major animated feature from the studio not to cross the magical $100 million mark domestically since 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under, and the critical response to the film was also more lukewarm than enthusiastic. Fairly or not, this lead to the movie being seen as a failure at the time, which gave Anastasia a hole it could fill that year. While it wasn’t bigger at the box office than Hercules (even though many newspapers mistakenly reported that it was), it did fare better with critics, with reviews praising the film for its widescreen animation (done in the 70MM format, something Disney hadn’t done on an animated film since 1985’s The Black Cauldron) and terrific songs (which were from Lynn Ahrens of Schoolhouse Rock! fame).
Ultimately, Anastasia helped usher in a new era for non-Disney animated features, even its success unfortunately wouldn’t be lasting for its parent studio. In 2000, Bluth and Goldman would again be brought aboard for the science-fiction thriller Titan A.E., but that film would go down as a colossal box office bust, and was cited as a reason to get Fox to close the doors of its animation studio for good. Still, Anastasia was enough to give other studios a much-needed confidence boost in the animation department, and the years that followed would see similarly “adult” family films like Antz, The Prince of Egypt and The Iron Giant. As for Anastasia, its legacy continues to live on, with a Broadway musical premiering earlier this year. The real-life story of Anastasia may be a tragedy, but in Hollywood at least, she’s lived happily ever after.