Tag Archives: Animated Films

Anastasia: 1956 and 1997

Anastasia(1956)MV5BMTYwNTA4NzY1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwODE1NzM5._V1_SX214_AL_Even though it has been conclusively proved that the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas of Russia, truly died with her family on July 17, 1918, the idea that Anastasia could have escaped has always fascinated people, even now. I was wondering about it recently, after watching for the first time 20th Century Fox’s animated Anastasia from 1997. What is the appeal of the story?

On the one hand, it has a haunting quality to it. Anastasia in film adaptations is a shadowing figure, dancing on the edge of history, only to fade out of it at the end to lead a normal life apart from the artificial constructs of history, tradition and ceremony. It’s a fairy tale; a princess, a young girl who, through no fault of her own, is caught up in the forces of history and thrown into the cold world where she has no identity, but acquires one, not so much through establishing that she is really Anastasia, but by finding love and acceptance.

There is also the appeal of a lost world (lost worlds, whether Atlantis, the British aristocracy featured in Downton Abbey, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World or, in this case, Imperial Russia, have an inherent appeal), combined with the fairy tale qualities of princesses, con artists, romances that never could have happened in Imperial Russia, political intrigue….it gives the story of Anastasia a unique quality all its own

Both films, the 1956 Anastasia and the animated musical Anastasia from 1997 tap into these things, though they both have a different intended audience and are from different eras. In both films, a con artist tries to pass a young woman off as Anastasia, in the hope of reaping a vast reward. In both cases, the key is to convince the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna that she is, in fact, her granddaughter. And in both cases, the young woman is struggling to find her identity, who she is, while the con artist discovers he has a heart.

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman

Anastasia: 1956 – Directed by Anatole Litvak, Starring Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes, Akim Tamiroff, Martita Hunt

Anastasia was a film adaptation of a popular stage play and also signaled Ingrid Bergman’s return to Hollywood after some years spent in Europe after the scandal of her affair and marriage with director Roberto Rossellini. Apparently the scandal was entirely forgotten and she was welcomed with great enthusiasm, even winning an Oscar for her role in the film as a sort of welcome-home-we’re-sorry-you-were-gone gesture, though she is certainly very affecting and effective in the role.

This Anastasia is kind of a blend of Cinderella, Pygmalion and Russian History. There is lots of intriguing by various people, which makes sense since it is based on a play and there is a lot of talking. The music is composed by Alfred Newman and I find it haunting. It is romantic, but also signals the ruins of what once was, the revolution and how the exiled Russian aristocracy are now trying to relive their past lives through Anastasia in a kind of grotesque, theatrical facsimile of a dead reality.

Anastasia: 1997 – Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, Voices by Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Angela Lansbury, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd

The 1997 Anastasia is an animated musical that is squarely in the realm, not only of a fairy tale, but also fantasy. It takes the original story told in 1956 and aims it towards a younger audience with less talking and more fantasy. Gone is the Pygmalion aspect of the story and added is a subplot involving Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), who has a vendetta against the Romanov family and is apparently the cause of the Russian Revolution. But the film gets away with it because it never pretends to be anything other than pure fantasy. Now, there is magic at play.

But it’s still a Cinderalla story, with Anastasia now in search, not only of an identity, but more importantly for her, in search of her family. The musical score was composed and orchestrated by Alfred Newman’s son, David Newman (using themes from his father’s score), while the songs were written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The songs “Journey Into the Past” and “Once Upon a December” were both nominated for Best Original Song.


downloadIn the 1997 film, there is no doubt in the audience’s mind that Anya is really Anastasia and it is more of a personal journey for her, to overcome obstacles (like Rasputin) to find her family. But she is essentially comfortable with who she is, a survivor who can take care of herself…very much a modern 1990’s woman.

Anna Koreff in the 1956 Anastasia, is much more fragile (portrayed beautifully by Ingrid Bergman). She’s suffered a lot, been in various mental hospitals and does not just suffer from amnesia like her animated counterpart, but is confused about her memories. What does she really remember? In this sense, she is not merely looking for family, but an identity, though she is a survivor in her own way. She finds herself when she adopts the identity of Anastasia, whether it’s true or not. “Real” identity doesn’t matter; it’s being loved. For the animated Anastasia, the identity isn’t as important. She has a family (identity); what she needs is to be reunited with them.

But in both films, she never does go to the ball (which would have introduced her to the world as the Anastasia). Neither does she marry a prince or get a crown. Instead, she makes her own life with the man of her choice. Both men are con artists who unexpectedly fall in love, though the animated con artist, Dimitri, used to be a kitchen boy working at the palace (making this a kind of reverse Cinderalla for him, since he gets to marry a princess), while General Bounine was part of the Imperial army. Andrea Lundgren has argued, however, that the ending of the ’56 film is slightly unsatisfactory, because we never actually see Anna and General Bounine (Yul Byrnner) leave together or hear them acknowledge their love. Instead, we hear they are gone and the film ends with The Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes). In the cartoon, we see them leave and she is not necessarily going to be separated forever from her grandmother (Angela Lansbury).

One thing that interested me is the criticism I have read of the films, arguing that they distort history and shamelessly exploit what is really a tragedy. I’ve already written about the first concern regarding distorting history, but the second one intrigued me. Is it exploitation? It seems a valid point. But if that is the case, then nearly every film or novel involving historical fiction, from the Titanic to WWII to a biopic of Billie Holiday, is essentially an exploitation. But people have always used historical figures and events to explore their own contemporary concerns, wishes, fears and dreams. To treat history as sacred, I fear, would be to confine it to dusty embalmment. But it is a reminder never to forget that history is full of real people who lived and died.

The score for the 1956 Anastasia by Alfred Newman (Wuthering HeightsThe Mark of Zorro, Airport, he wrote scores for over 200 movies) was nominated for an award for Original Music Score. Here is the main theme.

The singing voice of the 1997 animated Anastasia was provided by Liz Callaway.

“Once Upon a December” is essentially the theme of the movie. The melody is also heard in a music box given to Anastasia by her grandmother and is the means of reuniting them.

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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in Movies


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Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959)

"Once Upon a Dream..."

One thing that fascinates me about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is that it’s really not about Princess Aurora at all. She’s certainly in the middle of everything – the reason for the story’s being – but truly, the film makes me think of an internecine fairy war between Maleficent and the three good fairies: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. They’re the ones causing the tension, pushing the plot along, duking it out amongst themselves, though never quite directly. Prince Philip does have to face Maleficent at the end, but without the fairies’ aid, he would have been scorched toast before he’d even started.Untitled 9

Perhaps it’s inevitable that Aurora does not feature much in Sleeping Beauty. Because the story calls for her to fall asleep, she’s always out of the action…the really climactic action. She’s more a beautiful ideal – the reason all the other characters think and do and love or hate. Even in this modern society of ours, Disney seems to have tacitly acknowledged that there’s not much you can do with her by making their new Sleeping Beauty movie about Maleficent instead of Aurora.

I’ve always loved Sleeping Beauty. It’s one of my top two most cherished animated films from my childhood (the other is Beauty and the Beast), and it was partly because I loved those three fairies. They’re the real heroes, the main protagonists. I’ve read a lot, recently, about the destructive princess myth and how far Disney’s come from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Frozen – in terms of women being less helpless and supinely waiting for a prince to kiss and save them. But in Sleeping Beauty, you could argue that it is humans in general, and not specifically women, who are doing pretty badly in terms of empowerment. The fairies have it all – and they are all female.

FairiesIt’s true, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather can be like bumbling, fluttery old maid aunts, but they do have ability…and they have dedication. They are the ones who hide Aurora in an effort to keep her from Maleficent; they are the ones who rescue Prince Philip from Maleficent and aid him (multiple times) in his escape and finally, in his defeat of her. Meanwhile, Aurora sleeps, her father and Philip’s father get drunk and sleep, the kingdom sleeps. Everyone sleeps while the epic fairy battle is waged – vicariously through Philip (apparently the fairies can’t challenge Maleficent directly).

I’ve always felt that Sleeping Beauty is one of the most visually unique and lovely Disney films. Walt Disney had already done two princess films – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella – and he wanted to make this one as unlike the others as he could. Disney said that he wanted it to look like “living illustrations.” To do this, he hired Eyvind Earle to do the artwork.


The film took six years to make and went over budget and one of the reasons was how long it took to draw everything because all the animators had to match Earle’s style. Neal Gabler, in his book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, describes his style as “influenced by Dürer, Van Eyck, and Brueghel, but with a modernist twist in that the images were more abstract and less realistic and three-dimensional…” It was based heavily on Medieval art and architecture – there was a lot of research – and to me it looks like animated medieval mural. It was shot in Super Technirama 70, which was much wider than usual and contributed to that long mural look.

When Sleeping Beauty was released, it didn’t actually do that well with either the critics or the audience. It did much better, however, in subsequent releases throughout the years and become beloved and admired by many people, from animators to young children. Neal Gabler felt that the way the film was drawn made it too cold and that the story suffered with too much fairy interaction and too little Aurora. To me, however it is perfect. I love the fairies and rather than having a cold look, it looks magical – like an art gallery come alive –  but a slightly darker magical as befits a slightly darker, medieval magic.

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Alex Cranz, in her article “Sleeping Beauty (1959) May Not Be Progressive But It Is Critical,” says that “owing largely to that sumptuous artwork and thrilling use of Tchaikovsky’s music, [Sleeping Beauty] is more like a dream. It effortlessly flows from scene to scene, and Aurora, despite being unconscious for more than half the film, is ever-present.” I think a dream is exactly the right assessment of the film.

The music in the film is almost entirely drawn from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty ballet. The music and the singing is more classical than popular or Broadway-esque. To find a voice for Aurora, Disney took years. He wanted someone with a more operatic voice (if a character has a heavenly gift of song, they probably shouldn’t sound like a pop singer) but also a youthful and clear voice. Finally, he found Mary Costa and felt her voice had absolutely everything he wanted.

UntitledOf course, I don’t think the film would be nearly as memorable without the voicing of Maleficent by Eleanor Audley (click here for my previous post about both character and actor). She is quite simply the most marvelously undiluted villain in the Disney canon – the perfect blend of voice and visual art.

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That always creeped me out when I was a kid

She’s so spiteful and evil that she’s willing to devote sixteen years of her life just to make sure that her curse is fulfilled. That’s dedication. And the three fairies are equally willing to dedicate sixteen years of their lives to ensure that Aurora does not fall victim to the curse. I always wondered what Maleficent and the three fairies did before Aurora was born. What wars they must have had. There’s a prequel I would pay to see.

Notes: Mary Costa is most known for being the voice of Aurora, but after doing the movie, she went on to have a very successful career in opera. The voice for Prince Philip was provided by Bill Shirley, who also provided the singing voice for Jeremy Brett in the film version of My Fair Lady.

A running gag throughout the film is Merryweather and Flora’s fight over what color Aurora’s dress should be: pink or blue. I always wanted blue. Merryweather is my favorite character and I was rooting for her to win…and I like blue. My sister wanted pink. In the closing moments of the film, Flora and Merryweather are alternately changing the color of the dress as Aurora and Philip’s dance morphs into a picture in a book and there was a debate in our house for some time about what color the dress was just before the book closes. After careful viewing, however, we determined that it was pink. However, I like to think that the battle continued after the book closed.

Here is the link to the documentary, “Once Upon a Dream: The Making of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.”

For a further flavor of the beauty of the animation in Sleeping Beauty, here are some more images.

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Posted by on April 19, 2014 in Movies


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An appreciation of Maleficent and Eleanor Audley

images[6]With Disney’s upcoming release of the live-action film, Maleficent, with Angelina Jolie in the title role, I thought it would be refreshing to revisit the classic villainess in her original incarnation from the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, as well as to celebrate the woman who gave her voice: Eleanor Audley.

Maleficent is a classic villain, much in the way that Darth Vader is classic: timeless, formidable, iconic – iconic appearance, iconic voice. Everyone loves to love (or hate) a villain that embodies sheer menace and evil (though Darth Vader’s villain-ness kept getting murkier as the movies went along – he eventually wound up as a petulant boy! I suspect a similar dilution of Maleficent’s evilness in the new film).

And perhaps she’s only a cartoon, but what is Darth Vader: part triangular helmet with black cape and suit, part imposing posture, and part awesome voice.


What I loved about Maleficent is that she is a villain that’s female. That sounds a little obvious, but what I mean is that she is a villain first, who happens to be a woman (I guess, technically, a witch). She is not a femme fatale or vamp, sashaying through the story, swinging her hips and breathing down the necks of every man she encounters; she is just a villain. She’s the only one I can think of whose villainy is separate from her femininity. Men get to be villains, who incidentally are men; why not women?

There is no explanation for why she is evil; she just is, and because she is not invited to the celebration of Aurora’s birth, she curses the child. It seems she so embodies evil, that her mission in life is to wreak destruction. It’s a living, I suppose.

To savor her sheer awesomeness, here is a clip of various scenes from Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent in them

Of course, what makes Maleficent truly come alive is her voice (surely the most menacing voice in cartoon history – she could make a laundry list sound frightening). She was voiced by Eleanor Audley, who had, seven years earlier, also provide the voice for Cinderella’s evil stepmother in Disney’s 1950 animated Cinderella (click here for video of her Lady Tremaine).

When they animated Maleficent, Audley was the live-action model – she dressed in the costume and acted the part to provide a reference for the artists – and they modeled much of Maleficent’s facial expressions after her (to watch the video about how they animated the film from live action, click here. The part about Maleficent begins 2 minutes into the video).

Eleanor Audley

Eleanor Audley

Eleanor Audley mostly did radio and TV, as well as providing the voice for several animated films. Sadly, I cannot, for the life of me, find any information about her personally. She started in radio in the 1940s and 50s, and appeared multiple times in “Father Knows Best”and “My Favorite Husband” (as the mother of Lucille Ball’s character’s husband).

In the 1950s and 60s, she seems to have turned up in practically every popular TV show running: from the TV version of Father Knows Best to I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Wagon Train, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, Green Acres, and quite a few more. She made the most appearances in Green Acres (14 episodes), as the mother of Eddie Albert’s character, Oliver Wendell Douglas.

Since I grew up hearing her as a voice, it was fun for me to go back and find some of these TV episodes, just to see her in person. Here’s a clip of her in the Beverly Hillbillies. She plays a head schoolmistress dismayed when Jethro tries to enroll in her school.

Notes: Here is the trailer for Maleficent. It looks like a Lord of the Rings, “Wicked,” fairytale mash up, to me (are those creatures escapees from LOTR?), but I’m trying not to be prejudge… too much.

Extra:I found this video a lovely tribute to all the great voices in Disney films; which includes Eleanor Audley, as well as Stanley Holloway (as Kaa, Winnie the Pooh, and the Cheshire Cat) and many others.

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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in Movies


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