The king and you and me

This time out, the old chestnut looks like a Happy Meal

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 back yard. 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 come 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 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 weren't animation, he'd likely be pilloried by racial antidefamation groups.

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 is the heroine of the play's romantic subplot, is here in love with the king's oldest son. 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.

It's apparently Arthur Rankin, of the same redoubtable Rankin/Bass studios who gave us such children's faves as Mad Monster Party and the wonderful, slyly subversive Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, whom we have to thank for this stupefyingly weird retrofitting; he's credited with having "conceived and adapted for animation" the project. The director is Richard Rich, who did The Black Cauldron. For the encrustation of obligatory elements, such as the hokey bad guys and the cutesy critters, we can point the finger at Disney, which has established a formula for profitable, cross-marketable animated features.

This formula has resulted in some undeniably entertaining pictures by both Disney and competing studios. But the downside is that feature animation, a medium that should give free rein to the imagination, is now straitjacketed by the need to include stuff that can be put into Happy Meals.

In fairness to the new King and I, 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. It's based on a Broadway musical, which, like the 1946 nonmusical film with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, 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.

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.

For adults, the film does, at least, offer up most of the lovely, schmaltzy Rodgers and Hammerstein score. 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 animates the demonic statues in the temple behind the king's back. At the end, the king, his soul unburdened, sighs with contentment while his panther collapses next to him, exhausted from trying to ward off the evil to which the king was oblivious. The audience can empathize with the panther. We've been trying to ward off this busy, pointless distraction so we could listen to the song.

The King and I.
Directed by Richard Rich. With the voices of Miranda Richardson, Martin Vidnovic, Ian Richardson, Darrell Hammond, Christiane Noll, Adam Wylie, Allen D. Hong, Armi Arabe, David Burnham, and Tracy Venner Warren. Opens Friday.

 
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