One of the best animated films of the nineties, despite not being made by Disney (although people will argue with you that it is Disney, until they're blue in the face - or you make them google it) Anastasia was fresh and original, with great songs, a strong-willed heroine and one of the most attractive heroes in any kids movie. Yes, I know he's a cartoon. Set amid the aftermath of the Russian revolution, Anya is the princess who's forgotten her past, while Dimitri is the con-man who helps her remember. Anastasia taught a generation of little girls who the Romanovs were (I knew all the sisters' names and that the brother had a blood disease) and now it's coming back, all set to become a Broadway musical.
But this isn't the first time the story has been re-worked for a new audience. The 1997 version is in fact a re-make, based on the live-action (sadly non-musical) 1956 film, starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner. To celebrate the announcement of the new show, I thought I'd compare the two films to see how they match up. The new one is still my favourite, but the original has a lot going for it - not least, Yul Brynner playing guitar...
The 1997 film begins with a young Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst) in the glittering world of Imperial Russia. She is given a music box by her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and a necklace that unlocks the key, before her world comes crashing down around her. Being a children's film, a musical and a fantasy, the massacre of Anastasia's family is touched on only to let us know that they're dead. They don't go into the why's and where-fors of the revolution, instead evil is personified in Rasputin, who sells his soul for the power to destroy the Romanovs.
The 1956 film has no resident villain, but our heroes are a bit more complicated. The story begins with the meeting between them. Anna (Ingrid Bergman) is a young woman with limited memory of her past, recently held in a mental asylum for claiming that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia. General Bounine (Yul Brynner) was previously a member of Tsar Nicholas's personal guard, now he's a con-man out for the Grand Duchess's inheritance. Like Dimitri in the 1997 film, he has been searching for an Anastasia look-alike and persuades Anna to assist with his plan. But he's not really like Dimitri. Their status' before the revolution will give you an idea of their differences. Ex- kitchen boy Dimitri (John Cusack) is quite boyish, he and Anya bicker and banter together. General Bounine's a man, not a boy (but that's not to say I like him better.) Bounine is harsher, more manipulative - and he's definitely the brains of the operation.
Where the cartoon begins in Russia, with the characters travelling to Paris, the live-action film is set mostly in Paris before Anna, Bounine and co. travel to Copenhagen to meet Anastasia's grandmother. Before the travelling both films include sequences where Anna/Anya is taught to walk, talk and dance like a Grand Duchess. Aside from the un-dead Rasputin sub-plot, this section is more light-hearted in the animated film, which is partly to do with the characterisation of Anna/Anya. Anya (voiced by Meg Ryan once she's all grown up) is sassier and more fun. Ingrid Bergman's Anna is more damaged - unlike in the cartoon, she's had a close shave with a firing squad and spent years in and out of asylums. Yet gradually we begin to see her charm and sense of fun.
I enjoyed watching the old film, partly to spot the similarities. Although it doesn't include the adventure or fantastical scenes from the animated version (the train crash, sleepwalking on the boat, Rasputin in limbo) the romance plot is quite similar. One difference is that there's a bit of a love triangle, created when Bounine re-unites Anna with Prince Paul, the man she was engaged to as a teenager.
All the stuff with the Grandmother plays out in a similar way in both films - and both versions get me teared up when Anastasia and the Empress re-unite. The old film is maybe more heart-rending, due to some great acting from Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes.
I wasn't as satisfied with the (1956) ending, however. It's more or less the same as in the animated version (again, minus the Rasputin stuff) but I would have liked a final scene between Anna and Bounine. Although that's just my preference. I love the ending of the animated version!
The costumes in the 1956 film are lovely (especially Anna's dress and cape for the ballet) but strangely, the clothes in the animated film might win this one. The Disney girls never got so much variety!
Dressed for the ballet...
There are pros and cons to both films, but I saw the animated version at the cinema and it has remained a favourite. I love the songs and the characters, I just wish the animation was a tiny bit better. The 1956 film will never knock the 1997 off my top spot, but it's worth watching all the same. There are great performances from all the leads and it's that bit more adult and heart-wrenching. Plus it's fun comparing the two films.
1956: Bounine being jealous!
1997: The Once Upon a December sequence, Anya and Dimitri's bickering.
Have you got a favourite version? A favourite moment? Let me know in the comments!