It manages to reach a level of majestic beauty that previous attempts at the genre don't simply because it wiggles loose from the child-target-audience-restraints that Disney puts on its productions.
The results are evident, finally a "princess movie" I can say I enjoyed without feeling like a little girl.
If there are any gripes it's the music. Songs like "Under the Sea" and "A Whole New World" stick to you for life but when I remember Anastasia all I can think of are the visuals. The music is subsidiary.
In St Petersburg, Russia, in 1916, a lavish ball is held to celebrate 300 years of the rulling of the Romanov family. Attending the event is the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury), whose son Nicolas is the Tsar of Imperial Russia. At the event, Marie is happy to see her granddaughter Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst), who is sad that Marie will be going to Paris, France. Marie has chosen to give Anastasia a music box as a gift, which plays a melody that both of them know. The wind-up key to make the music box work is on a pendant, inscribed with the words, "Together in Paris."
The mood of the party is soon silenced as Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) enters, claiming to be Nicolas' "confidant." Nicolas instead brands Rasputin as a traitor, and orders him out of the Palace. Angered at Nicholas, Rasputin claims that he and his family will be dead within the fortnight, and vows to not rest until all the Romanovs are dead.
Rasputin then sells his soul for the power to destroy the Romanov family. With his stronger dark powers, Rasputin uses them to cause dissent among the people, who soon revolt and charge the Palace gates. Anastasia and Marie are in a room in the midst of the chaos, but escape through a secret entrance with the help of a servant boy. As they attempt to make their way across a frozen river on the Palace Grounds, Rasputin confronts them, but ends up on thin ice, which cracks and gives way under him, causing him to sink into the cold waters, leaving behind his magic reliquary and a little fruitbat named Bartok (Hank Azaria).
Anastasia and Marie attempt to board a train, but in the process, Anastasia loses her grip on Marie's hand, falling to the platform, where she hits her head and goes unconscious.
10 years after the revolution, St Petersburg is filled with gossip that Anastasia may still be alive, with the Dowager Empress Marie (who still resides in Paris) promising to pay a reward for the return of her granddaughter. A conman in St Petersburg named Dmitri (John Cusack) and his assistant Vlad (Kelsey Grammer) are attempting to find a woman to pass off as Anastasia, in hopes of bilking Marie out of the reward.
Meanwhile, Anastasia has grown up in an orphanage, under the name of Anya. Having developed amnesia after falling off the train onto the platform, no memory of her past life remains, except for the key/locket to the music box. The head of the orphanage has deemed it time for Anya to go to work, and sends her off to work at a fish factory. Anya soon comes to a fork in the road, with one way leading to the town where the fish factory is, and the other leading to St Petersburg. Unsure which way to go, Anya is surprised when a little puppy appears, and seems to lead her to St Petersburg.
Once there, she attempts to take a train to Paris, but is denied transit because she does not have an exit visa. A woman who hears this tells Anya to see a man named Dmitri, who she claims can help her. Anya is informed that Dmitri can be found near the now-abandoned Royal Palace, and soon enters. Once inside, she is overcome by various memories, as she enters the now-dusty grand ballroom.
Suddenly, a voice rings out, and Anya finds herself face-to-face with Dmitri and Vlad. Looking at her, Dmitri feels that Anya would be perfect for his plans, and convinces Anya that he can help her get to Paris if she will accompany him and Vlad to see the Dowager Empress and see if she may really be the missing Anastasia Romanov. Naturally, Anya goes along with the plan, having no knowledge of who she really is.
Meanwhile, in a little alcove of the ballroom, Bartok has been hiding, and notices that Rasputin's reliquary has started to glow. As he lays a hand on it, it suddenly rockets the little bat into 'limbo,' where Rasputin has been for 10 years. Since Anastasia survived, he was not able to die completely, and has been stuck in limbo as a rotting corpse. When Bartok presents him with the reliquary, Rasputin uses its powers to conjure minions to destroy Anastasia.
Anya, Dmitri, and Vlad board a train headed to Paris, but end up having to hide in the baggage car when their passports' coloration is overheard to not match the proper color. Rasputin's minions also intend to derail the train, but our group manages to escape before it plunges into a canyon.
They continue on foot, with Vlad telling of the Dowager Empress' first cousin, who questions anyone claiming to be Anastasia. Anya gets indignant that no one told her she had to prove she was Anastasia. Vlad convinces her that there's nothing for her back in Russia, and that Paris could hold something special. His words convince her, and they begin going over proper etiquette and Romanov history.
Eventually, they take a ship from Germany to Paris, where both Dmitri and Anya perform a waltz, which seems to bring the two a bit closer together. That evening, Rasputin invades Anya's dream, and causes her to almost sleepwalk over the edge of the boat, until Dmitri saves her.
After the two setbacks, Rasputin decides he will return to the living world and deal with Anastasia himself. Bartok reluctantly follows.
Anya, Dmitri and Vlad eventually make it to Paris, unaware that the Dowager Empress has had enough of the various impostors claiming to be her granddaughter, and decides to forgo the search.
Just moments after this decision, Anya and the others arrive at the Empress' mansion, and Sophie answers the door. Even though she has been privy to the Empress' wishes, she still questions Anya. Eventually, the questioning turns to just how Anastasia was able to escape from the Palace. Dmitri thinks that they will be found out, but is shocked when Anya explains that a young boy opened a secret passage for her and the Empress to escape through.
Sophie explains that Anya appears to have answered all the questions correctly, but explains about Marie's wishes to not see anyone else. Vlad insists that Marie meet Anya, and Sophie hints that Marie will be attending a performance of the Russian Ballet that night. Sophie then takes the three of them shopping for new clothes.
Later that evening, Dmitri takes Vlad aside, and explains that with the escape story that Anya told, he is sure that their intended impostor is the real Anastasia, telling Vlad that he was that boy in her story. However, their talk is interrupted as Anya arrives, and they go to their box in the Opera Hall.
During the intermission, Dmitri and Anya go to the Empress' private box, where Sophie allows Dmitri to meet with the Empress. However, Marie explains that she's heard about Dmitri, and knows about his schemes to deceive her. Dmitri leaves, but realizes too late that the door to the box was partially open, and Anya heard the entire conversation. Dmitri tries to explain who she really is, but she storms off and heads back to their residence.
Dmitri waits until Marie leaves the Opera House, and then takes the place of her chauffeur, driving her to Anya's residence, and demanding Marie see her. Marie still refuses, until Dmitri produces the music box that she had given Anastasia long before (the music box was left behind after Marie and Anastasia escaped through the secret door).
Marie then gives into Dmitri's wish, and talks to Anya. Anya explains that all she wants is to find where she belongs. As they talk, Anya shows Marie the locket she has, and when Marie produces the music box, Anya's memory fully returns, and Marie is overjoyed that she has found her granddaughter again.
Marie eventually calls on Dmitri, presenting him with the reward, and her gratitude. Even so, Dmitri refuses the reward, but is glad to see that he has reunited Anastasia with her true family. As he leaves, he encounters Anastasia, and the two exchange few words, with Anastasia believing that Dmitri got his reward after all.
Later on that evening, Marie and Anastasia are in attendance at a social function in Paris, in which Anastasia will be revealed to those in attendance. Marie explains that her granddaughter should be happy, but she seems somewhat distant. Marie knows that Anastasia secretly loves Dmitri, and explains to her that he did not take the reward. Marie goes out to join the festivities first, telling Anastasia that whatever path she chooses should make her happy.
After Marie leaves, Anastasia is distracted by her puppy, which leads her out into the garden near the building. As she makes her way to a nearby bridge, Rasputin emerges from the fog, and attempts to kill her. However, Dmitri (having had second thoughts) returns to try and save Anastasia. In the process, Anastasia manages to get ahold of Rasputin's reliquary, and destroy it, causing the 'mad monk' to finally be destroyed.
In the aftermath, Anastasia and Dmitri confess their feelings for the other, and elope, with Anastasia choosing to forgo her royal heritage for love, much to the delight of her grandmother, who declares it a "perfect beginning" for the two young lovers.