"There was a time not very long ago..."
With those eight words, Anastasia opened to audiences around the country. It was November 21, 1997 and Fox Animation Studios had just nationally debuted its first film, headed by director/producer duo Don Bluth and Gary Goldman and featuring a star-studded cast of voices, including Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria and Angela Lansbury with vocals by Liz Callaway, Jonathan Dokuchitz and more.
As fans well know, that film became the beloved animated, musical story of amnesiac orphan Anya, unaware of her royal roots and searching for somewhere to belong.
After catching the eye of masterminding duo Dimitri and Vlad, the group sets out to put the pieces of her regal past back together and convince the Dowager Empress Marie that she is indeed her long-lost granddaughter, Anastasia. While the two men initially think they can coach her to pass as the real royal, they soon realize no training will be necessary.
For their first animated venture, the studios honed in on the real-life legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. The imperial teen had been murdered with the rest of her family in 1918. However, public curiosity soon sparked over a theory of her potential escape, spurring impersonators to claim her identity as their own.
Of all the possible alleged survivors, Anna Anderson gained the most notoriety after some believed her to be Anastasia and her story garnered worldwide attention. Anderson's life later inspired several works, including a 1952 play and 1956 film. More than four decades later, Bluth and Goldman approached the story yet again, except this time with an uplifting angle.
"What we wanted to do was something more like My Fair Lady or a Pygmalion tale—a story of finding out who you really are," Goldman, co-director and co-producer, told E! News. "We wanted it to be a happy ending."
While (spoiler alert!) Anya does get her happy ending, the comedy also drew from actual events to inspire its darker moments. After thorough research—including enlisting former CIA agents that had been embedded in Moscow and St. Petersburg for reference—the team of writers let history inspire the film's next steps.
Of course, no story would be complete without conflict and a villain to conquer. After initially toying with the idea of a police chief with a vendetta against Anastasia, the team turned to a divisive and controversial Russian mystic who had befriended Tsar Nicholas II's wife, Grigori Rasputin, as inspiration for the film's sinister—and sometimes laughable—bad guy.
"All the different things they did to try to destroy Rasputin and what a horrible man he really was, the more it seemed appetizing to make him the villain," Goldman explained.
As a subtle nod to real life, animators had Rasputin fall through an iced river on the silver screen much like how Rasputin had actually been wrapped in cloth and thrown into a river after his murder in 1916.
Meanwhile, film Rasputin's equally memorable sidekick, the bat Bartok, was brought in for a pop of comedic relief. While there had been another actor to initially voice the animal, executives wanted a different sound and Azaria ended up getting an audition.
"Within the first 10 minutes, we were laughing," Goldman recalled.
One of the other immediately recognizable voices in the film is that of Ryan, the actress responsible for bringing the beloved undercover princess to life. A few years earlier, she had gained notable fame for her performance in Sleepless in Seattle, and it made an impression on former Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Bill Mechanic.
"Bill Mechanic kept talking about Sleepless in Seattle and all the movies that she had done where she just is sweetness and at the same time can be [spunky]," Goldman recalled to E! News. "He wanted her as Anastasia from the beginning."
To convince her to take the role, Bluth put together a short animated piece using her lines from Nora Ephron's film and played it for her. "We knew when she walked out that she was going to do it," Goldman noted.
Paired with John Cusack as the movie's designated dreamboat, Dimitri, the two formed one of the most memorable couples in animation history, but the mechanics of recording for the film didn't always make it easy for the two to build chemistry in the studio.
As Goldman explained, because of technical reasons, the actors had to read their dialogue separately to someone in the room who fed the other characters' lines back. However, the method presented a challenge for Ryan as Bluth fed her Dimitri's lines.
"She was having a tough time not being able to be cute with her body and her face and expressions that she did," Goldman said.
Fortunately, one day her and Cusack's recording sessions were back to back, so they decided to bring the two into the room and set them up to record next to each other. While they could not record on the same microphone because they had to be on separate tracks, they could see each other through glass barriers. "It made a huge difference," Goldman noted.
Animators even left a discreet nod to the real Anastasia with help from an authentic piece of artwork. In the beginning and end of the film, she and her grandmother exchange a drawing Anastasia had made. "It's the real thing," Goldman told E! News, noting actual Anastasia often took photos of her family and was fond of making art. The team found the drawing in a book and scanned it into the film.
As for the other sweet link between the two characters—the music box and locket key—it actually spurred the project's code name. To protect the soon-to-be successful film from leaking to competitors during production, the team resisted using the real name of the film and referred to it instead as "The Music Box," a reference to the gift the Dowager Empress gives Anastasia at the start of the film and proves her identity at the finale.
Among all of the magical elements at play, the film's resulting fandom boils down to the precious romance at the heart of the film.
"It's a love story. It's a great love story I think," he described. "Especially girls in their tweens…I think they got enamored by that character Dimitri."
The same can be said of the movie's outspoken heroine, who brought a notable element of independence and personality as an animated female character on the big screen. "I think they really enjoyed the fact that there was somebody like they felt," Goldman added.
Now, two decades later, Anastasia has remerged once again for a new generation thanks to a Broadway show of the same name, with music and lyrics by the film's Oscar-nominated composer and lyricist Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.
Meanwhile, Goldman suggested another way to bring their beloved creation back to the limelight. "I would hope that they would actually re-release it to theaters," he explained. "I think it would prove that it has the ability to draw another audience…The people that are 15 and 16 and 17, 18, 20 now didn't exist when this movie came out in 1997."
20 years after Goldman and Bluth headed to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City for the premiere of their finished animated film with a full audience, he reflected on their creation with fondness. As Goldman told E! News, "It's one of our favorites."