Last year, I did a series on the classic Disney princess movies, analyzing them to see whether they are as traditional and anti-feminist as some people believe. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to revive the series with a look at movies from the Disney Renaissance. But first, I want to look at a non-Disney movie from that era that should be counted in the canon, for theme and animation and music and general awesomeness, if not for the studio that produced it.
Because Anastasia is a fantastic movie. Historical accuracy is not its forte, but it’s also not meant to be. It has zombie Rasputin singing about his hatred of the Romanovs from limbo with a backing choir of luminescent bugs. Clearly, some creative license is going on here. At its heart, Anastasia is an animated fairy tale, adding an optimistic, happily-ever-after, zombie-filled spin on one of the most popular romanticized myths of the 20th century: that the Princess Anastasia somehow survived the revolution and would one day reemerge and find happiness after an otherwise traumatic period of history.
And although it’s not a faithful presentation of Anastasia’s tale, I’d argue that it is a wonderful and feminist movie (as well as being just so darn fun and adorable).
It’s about two women finding one another
Basically, this is one of those rare movies that has a Bechdel pass built into its core. Anya is searching for information on her past, and, more specifically, for the family that she believes may be in Paris. Her grandmother, aided by Sophie, is desperately seeking her lost granddaughter who she believes may have survived. Two women, searching for one another across Europe. Female characters and their motivations and desires are the very heart of the movie.
“Family” is a flexible thing
Anastasia is about finding family, if a slightly untraditional one, driven by the bond between a grandmother and her favorite granddaughter. And at the end, both Anastasia and her grandmother find it. But the movie doesn’t then insist that they must stay together always, or that Anastasia must change who she is because they’re reunited again. Anastasia finds her blood relative, and she’s delighted to do so, but she also discovers a family of choice, in Vlad, her dog Pooka, and of course Dmitri. She has a chance to become a princess and join her grandmother’s rich and exclusive lifestyle, but instead, she integrates her newfound self-knowledge with the family she already built for herself. She will love and spend time with her grandmother, but she will be her own person too.
Anastasia is a really fun, independent, strong-minded character
Seriously, Anya/Anastasia is an amazing character. She’s brave and out-spoken and self-confident and honest. She’s quick-witted in conversation and she thinks on her feet in a crisis. But she also expresses fear about setting off on her own path and seeking out her family. She can be a little bit bratty. And perhaps she’s a bit naive too, for not figuring out that Dmitri was a con man until they got to Paris. Yay for compelling and flawed animated protagonists!
The true love isn’t insta-love
In fact, it’s my favorite kind of romantic subplot. They dislike each other! They bicker! There’s tension! One saves the life of the other, and slowly a friendship develops. They elope in the end, but a lot of time has passed during the course of the movie. They basically walked and travelled by bus from Russia to Germany, and then took a boat to Paris, and then had to wait to speak to Anastasia’s grandmother. We’re talking months of travel with only each other and Vlad for company here. So we get a really adorable romance to ship, a fairy tale happy ending, and believable progression in the middle, with the idea that you might just want to spend an extended period of time with somebody and see their flaws before you declare your eternal love forever.
The world is populated by women as well as men
Studies show that crowd scenes in movies tend to be only 17% women. I didn’t exactly sit and count the number of men and women on screen, but I got the sense it was more than 17%. We saw men and women working and gossiping in St Petersburg. And on the train. And on the road. And dancing in Paris. And at the opera. The owner of the orphanage is a woman who berates Anya before sending her on her way. A woman advises Anya to see Dmitri. And after comments from the Frozen animators about the difficulty of making varied female characters because they have to be pretty, it’s refreshing to see that these background female characters have a variety of faces and sizes.
Once Upon A December may be my favorite Disney song, and it’s not even Disney. Now that’s an achievement.