The animation world has been taking off the last couple of years and that is cause for rejoicing among writers. With Anastasia, we have a new studio, Fox, entering the big-time, and they’ve done a nice job with the animated Broadway musical form that Disney, until now, has owned.
Like live action, animation depends above all on structure and genre. The first and most important choice for the animation film is whether to base it on the myth, fairy tale, or drama form. I believe for animation to have the greatest commercial potential it requires the fairy tale form. Which is why the choice of the Anastasia story is at first peculiar. This drama, presented years ago in an Ingrid Bergman movie, is predictable, slow and unappealing to children.
Not to be hemmed in by historical truth, the writers of Anastasia, the animated movie, make a number of changes to turn this drama into a myth/fairy tale. First, they begin with the Sleeping Beauty opening: everyone is having a grand time at a communal event when the uninvited evil guest, Rasputin, appears and curses the proceedings. This allows the writers to use the unique powers of animation to present social landscape, in this case the aristocratic world of kings and queens. They also get to rewrite history; instead of having to explain those messy, boring details of Communist takeover of a corrupt, brutal czarist state, they get to blame it all on an evil spell. (I always suspected that was the real reason anyway.)
Now the writers get to use a myth foundation for the desire line: Anastasia wants to find her home. But the writers wisely avoid the episodic problems that plague the myth form (and substantially hurt the success of “Hercules”) by layering a second genre, love, onto the story. Anastasia’s second desire, which occasionally conflicts with the first, is Dmitri. He becomes the second opponent (and first ally), and they experience all the classic love story beats on their journey to Paris. Instead of encountering a number of successive opponents, the lovers’ conflicts unify the middle of the script.
Having Rasputin return from the dead as the main opponent also solidifies the fairy tale form and avoids the episodic problems of myth. The writers use the Wizard of Oz trick of having the opponent watch the heroes on their journey and send minions to waylay them. This strengthens Rasputin as the central opposition and sets up the final battle. The writers also use the Disney comical ally trick with Rasputin’s bat, Bartok, easily the best character in the story.
Anastasia defeats Rasputin in the battle and she and Dmitri have self- revelations. Anastasia learns her true identity and her preference for love over riches, while Dmitri turns down the money for the woman he loves.
Anastasia shows that craft is as important to the success of animation as it is to live action. The writers know their myth, fairy tale, and love story genres and how to blend them in a seamless single strand. The characters begin with clear needs and end with self-revelations and moral decisions. For animation writers the lesson is clear: storytelling is king.