The King And I

on June 29, 1956 by Bridget Byrne
   This animated adaptation of the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I" (an adaptation of "Anna and the King of Siam," itself a distortion of the real life experience of a Victorian governess hired to teach Western ways to an Eastern potentate's many children and, when he listens, which is not often, to the monarch himself) takes numerous liberties with the most loved aspects of the story. Unlike most cartoons aimed at children, the additions and alterations don't include animals which speak and sing; this is a pity because the black leopard, the irrepressible monkey and the mango-tossing elephants have much greater screen presence than any of the human characters. Miranda Richardson has enough bossy authority in her voice to suggest some of Anna's spunk, but her efforts are completely undercut by the old-fashioned (in the wrong sense) illustration-on-a-chocolate-box appearance of the prim but feisty British widow. Christiane Noll, who handles the singing, never captures the power of the faith-in-one's-self sentimentality of songs like "I Whistle A Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You" and "Hello, Young Lovers." Martin Vidnovic misses the complexity of the conflicted King, who, despite the baldness and the copycat gestures, is only a faint image of that interesting, dictatorial oddball personified on stage and screen by the late Yul Brynner. But most sadly wasted is Ian Richardson, usually so astutely on target playing smarmy villains, but here unable to bring to life a cliche baddie with vaulting ambition, semi-magical powers and a silly sidekick. The time wasted on this scheming pseudo sorcerer, who is neither frightening nor funny, takes the heart out of the main story, which itself is further distorted by unnecessary and unconvincing plot twists including the King's trip in an air balloon to save the eloping young lovers, who in this version are his oldest son and a flower girl.
   The storytellers seem uncomfortable handling the essential seriousness of this lesson about tolerance, unsure how to mesh modern-day political correctness and the 19th-century milieu. The animation, lacks subtlety, going all out for rich purples, greens and yellows and displaying a fondness for black velvety touches (the flower girl's hair looks just like the leopard's coat), but creating only a few seconds of beauty in the simpler, stiller moments. Most disappointingly, the animation does nothing to flatter the musical numbers, particularly the best-known "Shall We Dance," which is twice rendered unsuccessfully. The clumsy jerkiness of the artwork and the lack of passion in the characters fails to evoke the glorious sweep of this visual metaphor of Anna and the King's love and trust in each other. Without that, there's no point--so even talking animals probably wouldn't have helped.    Voices by Miranda Richardson, Martin Vidnovic, Ian Richardson and Darrell Hammond. Directed by Richard Rich. Written by Peter Bakalian, Jacqueline Feather and David Seidler. Produced by Bakalian, Arthur Rankin and James G. Robinson. A Warner release. Animated musical. Rated G. Running time: 86 min.
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