Anastasia: Once Upon a Time (2020) poster

Anastasia: Once Upon a Time (2020)


USA. 2020.


Director/Screenplay – Blake Harris, Producers – Armando Gutierrez & Bret Jones, Photography – Dean Cundey, Music – Nami Melumad & Jeremy Rubolino, Special Effects Supervisor – Matt Strange, Production Design – George Goodridge. Production Company – Conglomerate Media/Swen Studios.


Emily Carey (Anastasia Romanova), Amiah Miller (Megan), Armando Gutierrez (Grigori Rasputin), Brandon Routh (Tsar Nicholas Romanov), Jo Koy (Vladimir Lenin), Donna Murphy (Yara the Enchantress), Kendall Vertes (Beatrice), Shanna Collins (Lily), Aliyah Moulden (Bliss), Haley Swindal (Tsarina Romanov), Bret Jones (Dale)


St Petersburg, Russia, 1917. Princess Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas, is attending a ball when it is invaded by revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, who is angry with Nicholas for not granting him an audience. Nicholas’s loyal advisor Rasputin ushers the Royal Family away to safety. Lenin is aided by the sorceress Yara and pursues, shooting Nicholas. Rasputin has opened a magical portal and sends Anastasia through it. She emerges in a bewildering year 1989. There she is found and befriended by Megan who gives her a home and introduces Annie, as she calls herself, to being a modern teenager. However, Yara takes control of Rasputin’s mind and sends him through the portal to bring Anastasia back.

Anastasia Romanova is a real-life historical figure who exerts a strange fascination over popular culture. Anastasia was the fourth child of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra and four of their children were assassinated in Ekaterinburg in 1918 by the Soviets. Despite this, there have been a number of people who subsequently claimed to be Anastasia and to have survived. The most famous of these was Anna Anderson/Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish woman with mental health issues, who appeared in the 1920s. Her claim was both supported as genuine and widely disputed by those who knew the real Anastasia. However, the graves of the Romanovs were uncovered in 1991 and DNA testing confirmed beyond a doubt that these were the bodies of the Russian royal family, revealing all these claimants as frauds.

There has been an ongoing fascination with Anastasia on screen. This began with a 1952 play based on the Anna Anderson claims, which became the basis of the film Anastasia (1956) starring Ingrid Bergman. This was later remade as the animated Anastasia (1997) with Meg Ryan voicing the role, which told an entirely fanciful account where Rasputin became an evil sorcerer, and later became the basis of a Broadway musical. There was also the tv movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986) starring Amy Irving.

This version comes from director Blake Harris who specialises in low-budget family films, having previously made The Little Mermaid (2018), while also coming up with the story for Hocus Pocus 2 (2022). Harris regularly produces with Armando Gutierrez who also acts in the films – here Gutierrez plays Rasputin, while the other producer Bret Jones plays Amiah Miller’s father in the present day.

Princess Anastasia (Emily Carey) emerges through the time portal in Anastasia: Once Upon a Time (2020)
Princess Anastasia (Emily Carey) emerges through the time portal into the present-day

The first thing you notice about Anastasia: Once Upon a Time is how historically dubious it is. The film gets lookalikes of Rasputin and Lenin, although Brandon Routh resembles nothing of Tsar Nicholas II. Like the 1997 film, fantasy elements are wound in. Lenin is aided by a sorceress and in a complete departure from history gets to lead an armed contingent to storm the palace where he personally shoots Tsar Nicholas. Rasputin is also a magician and opens a portal through time. This Rasputin is a far more kind and benevolent figure than history has him, is even someone that Anastasia is seen warmly hugging, although he does get possessed by the sorceress in the scenes set in the present. The drama of the story hangs around Anastasia returning to her own time and saving her father, although it is an ending where you cannot help but think that it only leaves her with a few months to live and she might have been better off having stayed in the present

The scenes where Anastasia turns up in the present day have a WTF bizarreness to them. Most of these scenes are played as an Outsider fantasy where she struggles to make sense of everyday customs. There are assorted scenes with the girls playing dress-up in a montage at the mall and Emily Carey trying to understand eating spaghetti. There’s an inanely improbable scene where she and Amiah Miller sneak onto the stage of a teen pop sensation (Aliyah Moulden) who is performing at the mall and the three girls are instantly befriended (rather than thrown offstage by security as they would in any real-life situation) and go shopping together.

Far more bizarrely absurd are the scenes with Rasputin in the present day. There is the entirely ridiculous image of Rasputin exiting a fast food franchise with a soda. How someone who would not speak English, let alone have any modern money, would negotiate obtaining such items is a question the film never deigns to ask. Even more ridiculous is when we get scenes of Rasputin encountering breakdancers and outdoing them with a balalaika, or of him playing videogames and entering a fashion parade.

Trailer here

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