Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The King and I

By Russell Smith

MARCH 22, 1999: 

D: Richard Rich; with the voices of Miranda Richardson, Martin Vidnovic, Ian Richardson. (G, 86 min.)

Much as I hate to disparage any effort to promote Rodgers & Hammerstein literacy among our Puff Daddy-enamored youth, this shabby, nondescript hack job leaves me no real choice. Frankly, I'm surprised that such a project was ever green-lighted in the first place; Fifties-era Broadway musicals are hardly the hottest cultural pulse among today's 12-and-under set. But if this was a miscalculation, it's one I'm happy to applaud. Not so Rich's dimwitted rewrite job that alters the original plotline almost beyond recognition in an attempt to tailor it to the ersatz Disney specs Warner Bros. so clearly had in mind. A few story elements do carry over from the 1951 musical and '56 film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. In the 1880s, a widowed Welsh schoolteacher named Anna Leonowens travels to Siam to tutor the children of King Mongkut, who wants to bring the benefits of Western civilization to his country. Mongkut, however, proves to be less a visionary than a royal pain in the butt. He reneges on several promises to Anna and drives her into spitting rages with his vanity, chauvinism, and dictatorial control over his subjects' private lives. These are conflicts best appreciated by adults. Likewise the latent erotic charge underlying the king and schoolmarm's battle of wills. So in an effort to keep his prepube audience's attention from wandering, Rich has invented from whole cloth a sinister archvillain with a fat, moronic sidekick (lock and load, PC crusaders against offensive ethnic stereotyping) and the obligatory array of cute animal characters. For good measure, he's also punched up the ending with a ludicrous action sequence that develops out of nowhere and is likely to have even the youngest, least critical viewers wondering what the hell is going on. Annoying though these changes are, they're probably inevitable given the Microsoftian rigidity of the Disney method. I was shocked, however, by the shoddiness of Rich's animation work, which I've previously respected (in films like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron) for its competent preservation of traditional cel-painting methods. From the crudely rendered backgrounds to the characters' bland, generic faces to the inept efforts to emulate digital effects, it's so patently substandard that I'm astonished any major studio would release it, much less actively promote it. The songs, of course, are the film's saving grace. Enchanting tunes like "The March of the Siamese Children," "Hello Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," and Anna's scathingly hilarious solo "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" (cut from the live-action movie because it was deemed too unladylike) retain all their swoon-inducing magic, regardless of the lackluster context. They possess a timeless quality of wit, sweetness, and liquid beauty that should connect with even the staunchest 'N Sync maven in your household. For the uninitiated, even the backdoor to this musical goldmine may be worth the taking.
2.0 stars

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