Rewriting History

Last weekend, I ended up rewatching the animated Anastasia (it was the result of a mental rabbit trail that started with a mention of a historical figure in something I saw elsewhere, and that led me to that era in history, so I decided to watch it), and that’s really a weird movie if you think about it. It’s absolutely gorgeous and has great music (though, oddly, has no romantic song in spite of there being a strong romantic plot), with musical numbers that are staged like they’re in a Broadway musical, right down to the characters holding their final poses as though they’re waiting for applause. But the plot is utterly bizarre and the love story has some lovely moments but has no connective tissue.

The plot is theoretically based on history, but they went far afield from what actually happened. I guess Disney did the same thing with Pocahontas, but in this case the events weren’t even a century old when the movie was made. There were people still alive who remembered these events. They were well-documented and even photographed. There were reasonably close relatives to these people who were still alive at that time (Prince Philip in England was a close enough relative that they used his DNA to identify the remains of the Romanovs, since he was related to Nicholas on his father’s side and Alexandra was his great aunt). Anastasia’s presence with the rest of the family when they were in captivity was documented. She wasn’t lost while they fled the palace. I know it would have been way too dark for a kids’ animated movie to have her crawl out from under the bodies of her family after they’d been shot and bayonetted, but they could have had her go missing some other way. Not to mention that she was a teen, not a child, at that time. Rasputin was actually quite friendly with the royal family. They were fond of him. In fact, that was the problem. The nobles didn’t like a commoner having that much influence, and it was other relatives who had him killed. I’ve read some in-depth biographies of him, and he wouldn’t have cursed the family or pursued them to their deaths (he did predict that the dynasty would fall within two years of his death if he was killed, but that wasn’t a curse, it was more of a concerned warning). And while the communist revolution was no picnic, it seems disrespectful to imply that everyone in Russia was happy living under the czar until Rasputin magically influenced them to revolt. Not to mention, the grandmother ended up in London, not Paris, since her sister was the dowager queen of England, and she later went to Copenhagen, since she was Danish (in spite of Angela Lansbury’s Russian accent in this movie).

If they were going to go so far afield from actual events, way beyond ordinary dramatic license, why not do the usual Disney thing and set the story they wanted to tell in some fantasy Fairytalelandia that was Not!Russia (the way Arendelle in Frozen was Not!Norway)? Then they could have gone nuts with it and made up everything. You could tell a story about a princess who was separated from her family and who lost her memory during some crisis and make up a really good villain with really good motives for pursuing her. Heck, if you’re making it all up, you could have a really happy ending in which she gets reunited with her family, who’ve been in exile, thinking she was dead.

The other thing that’s weird is the romance. There are some good moments, and it follows the usual romantic adventure pattern of bickering, then dealing with a crisis together, which leads to bonding, which leads to love, but it doesn’t really motivate or explain each step. They start bickering as soon as they’re on the train, and I have no idea why she was suddenly being extremely bitchy to him. She was getting exactly what she wanted, and I didn’t think he was being much of a jerk until she started being bitchy, and then he responded in kind and it escalated. To contrast, consider Tangled, which had a similar pattern of lost princess traveling with a criminal. They had bickering, but there was a reason behind it. She’d been brainwashed to think all outsiders were a threat and were after the power of her magical hair, she’d whacked him on the head repeatedly with an iron skillet, and she was holding his (stolen) belongings hostage to force him to take her to see the floating lights. Meanwhile, he was trying to discourage her from taking the trip by making the outside world seem scary so that he could escape the guards and his former allies. There was a good reason they were at odds with each other and disagreeing. In Anastasia, they’re both getting what they want out of the deal. No one’s being coerced. There’s absolutely no reason for them to be at odds. They didn’t even establish any personality or value differences that would explain it. They were just bickering because that’s what usually happens at this phase of this kind of story.

I think the casting of Meg Ryan doesn’t help here. At that point in her career she’d sort of fallen into a persona that was essentially the worst parts of Sally (“I want that on the side”). Or, as one reviewer said about her in one of her later rom-coms, “she seems to be in a permanent snit.” She spends the whole movie sounding somewhat annoyed and exasperated and very much like Meg Ryan.

They have the crisis when they have to work together to escape the runaway train, but it doesn’t lead to a bonding moment. They’re still bickering. There’s a musical number involving him and his sidekick training her to be a princess as they travel, but there’s no direct interaction between Anya and Dmitri. She’s interacting mostly with Vlad and pointedly snubbing Dmitri, who spends most of the number scowling in the background. There’s no point when they find common ground or talk and get to know each other (like the conversation in Tangled when he confesses his real name and backstory and she confesses that her hair is magical and explains her upbringing). Then he gives her a new dress, which she’s bitchy about, and he’s dancing with her as she’s being taught to waltz, which leads to a moment and an almost-kiss, which comes out of nowhere. Then there’s all his angst when he realizes she really is the princess, which means he can’t be with her, and they’re both willing to give up everything for each other, but they’ve never yet had a civil conversation or any kind of interaction that suggests that they have any connection at all. They’re in love because they’re in this movie together, and that’s it. Maybe that’s why there’s no romantic song. The closest is the one Vlad sings about them when he realizes they’re connecting and this could be trouble, and I guess that’s along the lines of what Disney was doing in that era. Instead of the characters singing to or about each other, they have a third party singing about them (like “Kiss the Girl” or “Beauty and the Beast”).

This is my pet peeve about bad rom-coms and romances. If there’s bickering, there needs to be a reason beyond just personality differences. It needs to be something situational or that can be changed as one or both learn and grow. If it’s just a personality difference, then they don’t have much hope for a relationship. And there needs to be a reason why they fall in love beyond just seeing each other in better clothes. What did they learn about each other that makes them bond and then fall in love?

Of course, now I’m trying to figure out if I could get away with a missing princess story that doesn’t look like Anastasia with the serial numbers rubbed off, but I just realized I have a lurking story fragment that gender flips it, with a prince who escaped. I wasn’t deliberately doing a take on Anastasia. Actually, I was creating a backstory for an undeveloped character in some other story, and it spun out of control to become a whole story that had nothing to do with that, as these things so often do for me.

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