Royalty Check

I went all alone on Saturday afternoon to see Anastasia, the vastly hyped, $100 million dollar animated cartoon version of the mystery surrounding the fate of the youngest daughter of the Tsar of Russia. I shouldn't say "I went," actually. What I did was sneak into the theater, just as the lights went down, wearing dark glasses and hiding my face behind a newspaper in case anyone on the premises had a mind to ask me questions about the film. My friends and family, worried that I might have a stroke, had offered to hold my hand during what we all assumed would be an ordeal, if not an outright torture for me -- the total desecration, as I supposed, of a subject I hold close to my heart and which gave me my start as a professional writer. But stoic that I am, I preferred to go it alone.And here's the kicker -- I liked the movie. I mean, I really liked it. I'm pinching myself as I write this, but I have to tell the truth.For the record, I am the author of the definitive work on the life of "Anna Anderson," the mysterious unknown woman who for 62 years -- until her death in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1984 -- claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only survivor of the 1918 massacre of the Romanov family during the Russian Revolution. My belief that her claim was authentic, that Anna Anderson truly was the missing Anastasia, is no secret to anyone, and has survived even the negative results of DNA tests conducted in England several years ago at the behest of the Russian government.Not being a scientist, I'm not in a position to dispute scientific conclusions. I can only assert, with absolute authority, that the DNA findings stand in direct contradiction not only to the vast body of independent evidence that exists in Anna Anderson's favor, but to the testimony and experience of everyone who knew her. Being one of the last of these, and having studied her case with a thoroughness matched only by the lawyers who conducted her exhaustive suits for legal recognition -- the "Anastasia" trials occupied the German courts for nearly 40 years and ended in a draw, neither proven nor disproven -- I maintain my faith in her authenticity without remorse, even though it's landed me in the Conspiracy Theorist/Sore Loser/Loony Tune category so far as science and history go.The truth is that they don't go far at all. When the bodies of the Russian imperial family were finally discovered in a secret grave in Siberia in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet government, Anastasia's was found to be missing. At the same time, handwriting analyses and forensic comparisons of Anna Anderson's face and ears with the "real" Anastasia's unanimously conclude that the two women were identical. This is not to mention the scores of witnesses who had known Anastasia in Russia and recognized the claimant in later life.At the very least, the mystery endures, and for that reason I still get royalty checks twice a year on a book first published in 1983.Mind you, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, the producers of the all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing-villains-and-lovable-animals cartoon version of the story, didn't consult me when they put ink to paper, or anyone else, so far as I know, who actually knew Anna Anderson. Anastasia is the first production of Fox Animation Studios, a division of 20th Century Fox established for the express purpose of unseating Disney in the animated features department."[We] wanted to do something like My Fair Lady," Don Bluth explains, "where a girl is transformed from something ordinary to something quite glorious." For a while, according to him, Fox considered a re-working of Annie Get Your Gun, "which was about this little country girl who becomes the star of Wild Bill Hickock's 'Wild West Show.' But soon we began asking, 'How high could we go with this?' and the word 'princess' kept hitting the table, which got us to the story of Anastasia."On the surface, nothing more incongruous can be easily imagined, short of a cartoon version of Anne Frank's Diary or a musical comedy about Diana in Paris. But looks are deceiving, and I'm the first to eat crow. Anastasia is without doubt the most sophisticated, lushly designed, darkly beautiful "cartoon" you'll be seeing for a long time to come. On its own terms, at least, it's a work of art.Three years in the making, with a list of credits that runs to 16 pages in press hand-outs, the cartoon Anastasia is a spirited adaptation of the 1956 Ingrid Bergman vehicle of the same name, also produced by 20th Century Fox. For the Bergman film, Anna Anderson's story had already been fictionalized, romanticized and Hollywood-ized beyond recognition, depicting "Anastasia" as a beautiful amnesiac who is hired to play the part of the Tsar's daughter in order to lay claim to the Romanov fortune in Europe. But she slowly discovers, as her memory returns, that she's the genuine article after all.In the end, although she's been acknowledged as Anastasia by her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, she decides that love is more important than money and a crown and elopes with a handsome Russian who values her for herself and not for her royal status. Sunset, swelling music, hearts and roses. Happy end.As if. It was corny when Ingrid Bergman did it and it's corny now. But fairy tales have their place, and it was Bergman's glamorized Anastasia that first introduced me to the story that would alter my existence, when I was 13 years old. It was Hollywood at its schmaltziest that lit my youthful fire and set me off on an incredible, one-in-a-million adventure that remains the most compelling of my life.I sat at Cinema 9 on Saturday afternoon amid a swarm of children and wondered if there might be one among them, or more than one, whose life would be changed by the experience -- by this ludicrous cartoon I'd expected to despise, and was expected to despise by everyone who knows me. But I couldn't despise it. My cynicism had vanished. I saw nothing but eagerness on the children's faces and felt a wash of emotion, remembering myself at a comparable age and the doors that were magically opened for me thanks to Hollywood sentimentality.Bluth and Goldman are insisting in interviews that Anastasia is "not a children's movie," and in a way they're right. They've cleaned it up for the kids -- there are no Bolsheviks, no bloody revolutions, no horrible massacres of innocent children in the middle of the night -- but they've kept its essential darkness, its mystery, its atmosphere of loneliness and loss. They have done this, moreover, not through plot or characterization (with Meg Ryan providing the voice of Anastasia, the heroine can only be chipper and hip), but visually, dimensionally -- in a word, artistically.The recreations of Rastrelli palaces, Russian snowstorms, ghostly memories and storm-tossed ships are ravishing to look at. There's a speeding train-wreck that's even better than The Fugitive's, and when the action moves to Paris, in the late 1920s, Anastasia turns positively witty, with Josephine Baker slinking by in a cameo appearance and a bunch of sailors, muscle-bound French matelots, that might have come directly from the mind of Jean Genet.For the rest of it, and because I'm supposed to be a critic: Only one of Anastasia's animal characters, "Bartok the Bat," is actually made to talk, which must be a record for the genre. The outrageous liberties taken with the character of Rasputin, which currently have a lot of historians with their knickers in a twist, aren't worth getting upset about; for once "the Mad Monk" provides comic relief. I don't know why every cartoon made in America needs to waste its time with songs -- merchandising, I suppose -- but there's only one in Anastasia that's even remotely memorable, and before the movie was over I had forgotten they were there.I left the theater in a state of gentle elation, wide open emotionally, reminded again of the unexpected roads that life can offer, and very thankful that I went down mine when I saw it.

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