Siam Difference

Imagine a bunch of kids watching the classic 1956 film musical The King and I on television, then going outside and spending the rest of the afternoon acting it out in the backyard. Apart from a lack of hired-gun Broadway voices performing the songs, their re-creation might not be too different from Morgan Creek's new animated version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut.

Anna still comes to 19th-century Siam (now Thailand) for a gig as governess to the King's many children. But this time, she and her son arrive on a ship that's fighting its way through a raging tempest, and they sing "I Whistle a Happy Tune" to dissipate the illusions of menacing dragons that have been conjured up by the Kralahome. Remember the Kralahome? The Siamese prime minister was a stern but not sinister figure in the original musical. Here, envelopingly voiced by Ian Richardson, he's a wicked sorcerer who watches the action on a magic gong, and is scheming to seize the throne and--in a surefire touch of PC villainy--get rich in the ivory trade.

In other words, he's been turned into a standard-issue animated-feature villain. And he comes complete with a standard-issue groveling sidekick, a roly-poly lucky-Buddha caricature called "Master Little," voiced by the gifted Saturday Night Live comic Darrell Hammond with such a broad chop-suey accent that, if the film wasn't animation, he'd likely be pilloried by racial antidefamation groups (this may happen anyway).

The childlike embellishments don't stop there, however. There are cute little animal pals--a monkey for Anna's son, a baby elephant called "Tusker" and a stately black panther who attends the King. Tuptim, the Burmese concubine who's the heroine of the play's romantic subplot, is here in love with the King's oldest son. Bafflingly, she has jade-green eyes. There's a big chase finale in which the King rides to the rescue of these lovers in a hot-air balloon, while the Kralahome tries to shoot him down with fireworks. Honestly, I'm not putting you on about any of this.

It was apparently Arthur Rankin, of the same redoubtable Rankin/Bass studios that gave us such children's faves as Mad Monster Party and the wonderful, slyly subversive Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, that we have to thank for this stupefyingly weird retro-fitting; he's credited with having "conceived and adapted for animation" the project. But for the encrustation of obligatory elements, like the hokey bad guys and the cutesy critters, we can point the finger at Disney, who has established a formula for profitable, cross-marketable animated features that's almost as rigidly ritualized as Kabuki.

This formula has resulted in some undeniably entertaining pictures, both by Disney and by competing studios. But the downside is that feature animation, a medium that should give free reign to the imagination--and should not be exclusively the province of kiddie audiences--is now straitjacketed by the need to include stuff that can be put into Happy Meals.

In fairness to the new King and I and its alterations, it should be noted that the 1956 film, with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in the respective title roles, was hardly an unadulterated account of the story. The material has a complex lineage--it's based on a Broadway musical, which, like a 1946 nonmusical film with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunn, was based on Margaret Landon's 1943 book Anna and the King of Siam. This work, in turn, was adapted from The English Governess at the Siamese Court, the published diaries of a Welsh widow named Anna Leonowens, who spent the mid-1860s as tutor to the numerous offspring of Siam's King Mongkut. Each generation of the story has softened up its harsh edges. The animated version can't really be blamed too vigorously, I suppose, for following suit.

In further fairness, it should also be noted that the kids with whom I saw this King and I did seem to enjoy it, and that in the lobby after the screening two boys of about 8 or 9 could be seen trying to learn to dance, like the King. That civilizing influence should count for something.

For adults, the film does, at least, offer up most of the lovely, schmaltzy R&H score, competently sung from journeyman lungs belonging to the likes of Christiane Noll and Martin Vidnovic. Even here, though, the pleasure comes with a wearying price tag--the numbers are more or less used as background, while elaborate, frantic slapstick is kept buzzing in the foreground to keep the kids from squirming too much.

During "A Puzzlement," for instance, while the King sings his heart out to Buddha, the Kralahome's magic animates the demonic statues in the temple behind the King's back. The payoff to this deranged gag is that at the end of the number, the King, his soul unburdened, sighs with contentment, while his panther collapses next to him, exhausted from desperately trying to ward off the evil to which the King was oblivious.

We in the audience can empathize with the panther--we were trying to ward off this busy, pointless distraction so we could listen to the song.

The King and I
Directed by Richard Rich.

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