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The King and I

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 19 March 1999

  Directed by Richard Rich

Starring the Voices of Miranda Richardson,
Martin Vidnovic, Alan Hong, Armi Arabe,
Ian Richardson, and Darryl Hammond

Written by Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein II,
Arthur Rankin, Peter Bakalian,
Jacqueline Feather, and David Seidler

Warner Brothers' The King and I is an animated retelling of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage classic, or at least that's what it claims; in truth, it's more mockery than homage. The film is the cinematic equivalent of Cliff-notes, to be employed by those who don't have the attention span for anything longer or more intellectually challenging than a "Road Runner" cartoon.

At cursory glance, the plot appears to be the same: a British schoolteacher named Anna (Miranda Richardson) is offered a job as tutor to the King of Siam's children. She accepts, on one condition: she wishes to be given a house of her own, located outside the palace walls. Although the king (Martin Vidnovic) agreed to this stipulation via letter, he is much less reluctant to grant the wish once Anna and her son actually make it to Siam. But the teacher is a fiercely

determined woman, not afraid to stand up for her rights; soon the king grows fascinated with the intelligence and charisma of the new arrival. Although the monarch and the teacher come from varying backgrounds, they are eventually able to put aside their differences and strike up a friendship.

That's about where the similarities between the two versions of the story end. This new animated incarnation cheerfully jettisons all the thought-provoking aspects of the original work (like the conflicting emotions the king feels over the issue of slavery, or his confusion over how the world could've been created in six days according to the Bible, when science clearly says it took millions of years). This "adaptation" (I call it butchery) is strictly vanilla fare, with all the meat watered down to the point where it tastes indistinguishable from the broth.

So what does director Richard Rich do with the leftover space which remains after he's stripped away half the story? Why, add a bunch of cartoon staples, of course. Since it's impossible to make an animated feature without including a number of easily marketable animal sidekicks, the film gives Anna's son Louis (Adam Wylie) an obnoxious pet monkey. The King himself gets a jet-black panther named Rama, and slave-girl Tuptim (Armi Arabe) befriends an adorably big-eyed baby elephant that seems to be in this movie for no other purpose than to give Warner Brothers a stuffed animal that's guaranteed to fly off toy store shelves.

The original The King and I had no central villain, per se. The King wasn't a bad man, just ignorant of British culture. But since you can't make an action figure out of "ignorance," this adaptation has turned the King's Prime Minster, Kralahome (Ian Richardson), into an archetypal evil villain stereotype. He appears to be the twin brother of Aladdin's Jafar, both physically and mentally: Kralahome possesses sorcerer's powers, has mad ambitions of ruling the kingdom, and will stop at nothing to dethrone the king (although he takes time periodically to leer and break into demented laughter, to make sure the audience knows that he's evil). And just as Jafar had the obnoxious Iago for a sidekick, the prime minister is followed around by a short, fat, incredibly stupid companion named Master Little (Daryl Hammond). Little is just as flat and cliched as his boss; although the children at the screening I attended seemed delighted by his madcap antics, I found him infuriating, particularly during a ridiculous subplot involving Little's tendency to involuntarily lose his teeth. Why does a story that's supposed to be a tragedy need such obnoxious comic relief?

I say "supposed to be," because this film turns the thought-provoking scenes of the original story into a trite, giddy smile-fest. Gone is the heartwrenching moment in which the king dies of a mysterious illness (which appears to be a broken heart), replaced with a chase scene involving a hot-air balloon and a couple of elephants. I expected the king to be a brave man, but who knew he was a Jackie Chan-wanna be?

Perhaps most disappointing is the way the original tale's emotional axis, the forbidden love affair between Tuptim and a freeman, is relegated to a status of irrelevance. The affair ends tragically in the original film, giving the king (and the audience) much to think about. But here, Tuptim's love interest is none other than the crown prince himself (who was a boy in the earlier version, but appears to be roughly sixteen here); therefore, all sense of tension is immediately irradicated. Obviously the king is not going to harm his son, so these scenes play off as nothing more than cheap formula: the conclusion that they'll live happily ever after is foreordained, but nonetheless, cliche' requires the inclusion of a romance, leaving a story that proceeds so transparently that there is no way for us to be surprised by anything we're seeing.

The movie is not devoid of merit, however. The animation is spectacular-- so good that the film may actually be worth a peek simply to bask in its remarkably vivid colors. Of particular note is a montage of scenes in the palace gardens, which are rendered so brightly and beautifully that I actually whispered the word "Wow." The tune "Getting to Know You" also puts in a stellar appearance here: in the original movie, the song is performed by Anna and the children in their palace classroom; here, Anna takes the kids on a field trip to the village just outside the palace gates (which the kids have never seen). It gives new meaning to the lyrics, and is clever and touching at the same time. Had the film been daring enough to reinterpret the material more often, rather than "dumb it down," it could've provided a fresh new slant on a beloved story; as it stands, it's the only fresh moment in the movie.

This remake of The King and I is painfully disappointing. It adheres to the belief that children are idiots who won't be able to fathom a tale that possesses any depth or intelligence, and steadfastly refuses to raise any issues worthy of thought and discussion. Instead, we're given an overabundance of cuteness, a false-feeling happy ending, and cartoon cliches. This isn't so much The King and I as The King and I and His Kids and the Villagers and a Pointless Romance and a Bunch of Animals and Cardboard Villains and our Merry Life Together in the Magical Land of Dreams...; or, as the king himself might say, "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."

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