Did you know that the legendary Grigori Rasputin was actually a kindly wizard who could open portals through time? You didn’t? Well, me neither, and it is this kind of startling information that will be revealed to those who watch writer/director Blake Harris’ fantasy film Anastasia: Once Upon a Time, a film so sweet and saccharin that it spends most of its time trying to look like a Disney Channel Original. But how, you ask, does one turn a historical tragedy into a film aimed at tweens?
Our story begins in 1917 where the Romanovs are holding a grand ball at the Winter Palace, and it’s outside the palace where we find young Anastasia (Emily Carey) sitting on a swing with her best friend Grigori Rasputin (Armando Gutierrez), who’s not so much a mad monk here but more of a kindly uncle figure, and he convinces her to go inside and join her family at the party – Anastasia is a tad miffed that “All of Russia” can’t attend the ball – but dark forces are on the move and despite Rasputin’s warnings to Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov (Brandon Routh), he snubs Vladimir Lenin (Jo Koy) by not inviting him to the party. Apparently, this affront was enough to spark the February Revolution which starts off with Lenin and his socialist cronies storming the palace to wipe out the Romanov family and save Russia for The People. Lucky for Anastasia, this Rasputin has the ability to create time portals and he sends the girl forward through time – her family too moronic and slow to hustle through the portal and thus they are left behind to deal with Lenin’s tender mercies – and so Anastasia finds herself all alone in the United States circa 1989.
Before going through the portal, Rasputin had gifted Anastasia with a magic amulet that would glow blue to indicate where she would find aid or red when there was danger. Unfortunately for our heroine, Lenin had his own magic user on staff in the form of Yara the Enchantress (Donna Murphy) and she uses her mind control magics to force Rasputin to go after Anastasia and bring her back. What follows is probably one of the most painful pieces of treacle ever put to film. The glowing amulet leads Anastasia to a teenage girl named Megan (Amiah Miller), an outcast herself who is often targeted by a trio of “Mean Girls” who seemed to have escaped from Cliché High School 101. Megan and Anastasia become fast friends and we are treated to scenes of them going to the mall so that we can have the obligatory makeover montage, a sequence where they dance on stage with popstar Bliss (Aliyah Moulden) and eventually end their day at a Halloween party, and all of this is intercut with Rasputin wandering around looking for Anastasia.
I know I’m not remotely the target demographic for this type of film, but I can’t see any age group getting much out of this thing. The period costumes are so bad one has to assume they were scavenged from the Halloween racks at a local thrift store and the very look of the film is of an over-saturated cotton candy explosion. A half-hour into this thing and I was worried my eyes would start to bleed. The acting is bad across the board with performances that would make Florida Dinner Theatre look good by comparison – I have no idea how they got Brandon Routh to be in this thing, but even he sucks balls here – and the two young leads have about as much screen presence as wet toast.
• I’m not sure why Rasputin chose the late 80s as a safe place to hide Anastasia nor why he’d pick the United States. Was it the “Just say no to drugs” campaign that inspired him to choose this time period?
• Both Anastasia and Rasputin take such technological wonders as modern vehicles and kitchen appliances with a great degree of aplomb.
• Rasputin takes a city bus to the mall, but we never find out how he paid the fare. Did he mesmerize the driver?
• When Megan learns that Annie is actually the Anastasia, she asks what happened to her family and Anastasia, but the book she recently purchased clearly shows a photograph of her family’s graves. I guess putting two and two together wasn’t her strong suit.
In 1997, Fox released an animated film Anastasia, and even that film was more sensitive to the execution of the Romanov Family – it taking place years after the event and giving Rasputin a goofy bat sidekick – but not only does this film do its best to gloss over the tragic events, it also uses time travel magic to re-write history. The movie ends with Anastasia returning to Russia moments before she initially entered the portal, and thus, she is now able to hustle her family out before Lenin and his goons capture them, but this time the portal just opens a doorway to outside the palace with no explanation as to why the time-travelling aspect was not used, and they are then aided by a Chinese delegate who had been attending their party. Because, why not? We then get an epilogue where Megan discovers that their new neighbours include a now eighty-three-year-old Anastasia. Holy Mother of God, is this film bad!
Historical Note: The Romanov girls apparently did carry lockets with amulets bearing Rasputin’s picture and a personal prayer, made creepier by the rumours that Rasputin had seduced not only the Tsarina but also the four grand duchesses, and he was known to visit the girls’ bed chambers while they were in their nightclothes. Also, he died years before the Romanovs were executed.
Anastasia: Once Upon a Time (2019)
Movie Rank - 2.5/10
One doesn’t sit down to a viewing of this sort of film and expect any sort of historical accuracy but I think almost every one of my senses was offended by this film, as both a lover of film and lover of history. So, if someone in your family has the desire to see this film do your best to discourage them and save all concerned a lot of grief.