The first major studio animated feature adaptation of a Broadway musical, "The King and I" is Rodgers and Hammerstein with training wheels. Torn between the conflicting needs to be faithful to an enduring musical classic and to deliver a digestible piece of animation for kids, project conceiver Arthur Rankin and director Richard Rich have split the differences in mostly unwieldy ways.

The first major studio animated feature adaptation of a Broadway musical, “The King and I” is Rodgers and Hammerstein with training wheels. Torn between the conflicting needs to be faithful to an enduring musical classic and to deliver a digestible piece of animation for kids, project conceiver Arthur Rankin and director Richard Rich have split the differences in mostly unwieldy ways. Latest version of the musical is scissored to under 90 minutes (from the 2-1/2-hour stage version and the two-hour-plus 1956 film version) and trims 12 of the original 20 songs. Broadway musical purists will shudder in horror, but parents will be whistling a happy tune that there’s at least one acceptable pic out there for their kids. This could extend B.O. life past opening weeks, with princely returns in vid.

In notable contrast to Warner’s last misplaced stab at animation, “Quest for Camelot,” the song score is a kind of melodic heaven. But the ideal combo of musical art with animated state-of-the-art continues to elude feature animators as this toon-heavy decade ends. Rich Animation Studios’ animation work (internationally spreading the labor to Hong Kong, Korea and India, as well as Burbank) is a curious hodgepodge of awkward human movement, tired nature effects and fine painterly backgrounds and detail work.

In terms of story, this is definitely not your parents’ “King and I.” Even before British governess Anna Leonowens (Miranda Richardson, with Christiane Noll doing singing duties) and her son, Louis (Adam Wylie), arrive in the Bangkok port to meet the Siamese King, their ship is rocked and rolled by a fierce storm and a fire-breathing dragon conjured by the King’s evil version of Henry Kissinger, the Kralahome (Ian Richardson).

Apparently unsatisfied with his seemingly boundless magic powers to wreak havoc, the Kralahome — haplessly assisted by pic’s primary comic relief, roly-poly Master Little (Darrell Hammond) — wants the throne for himself, and plots to use Anna as his Trojan Horse to stage a coup.

After several minutes of invented action for this version, Anna meets the King (Martin Vidnovic), who has just accepted the “gift” of meek Burmese servant Tuptim (Armi Arabe, sung by Tracy Venner Warren) into his court. To show off his Western ways, the King, shadowed by his watchful pet panther, Rama, gives Anna and Louis a tour of his science-and-industry factory. In the vibrantly colorful court gardens, Tuptim fatefully encounters the kickboxing Prince Chululongkorn (Allen D. Hong, sung by David Burnham), leading to a more dramatically charged “impossible” romance than in the original version.

As enchanted Anna receives her new pupils — while demanding a home of her own outside the palace walls — the Kralahome delivers a missive to seaborne British emissary Sir Edward Mallory falsely suggesting that Anna’s under threat by the “barbarian” King. In one of the toon’s few clever changes from the original, Anna leads her pupils outside the palace to mix with the Siamese locals to the tune of “Getting to Know You” (including a brief, eye-grabbing bit of animation employing Thai puppet theater figures).

The Brits arrive to a show of Western civility staged by Anna (the grand banquet table here is a virtual direct copy of the film-version design), but the elopement of Prince and Tuptim leads to a Disneyfied action climax involving steep canyons, wild rivers, hot-air balloons and — in the biggest alteration of all — the King reviving from near-death to waltz with Anna.

The Kralahome’s increasingly violent schemes tend to overshadow the conflict between Anna and the King over her demands for autonomy. Keeping kiddies in mind, scripters Peter Bakalian, Jacqueline Feather and David Seidler steer clear of the original’s coy gender issues, and excise whole sections of the musical, including Tuptim’s court staging of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as an anti-slavery agitprop piece. Instead, the once-neglected Louis is now foregrounded, and the creatures rule, including frisky baby elephant Tusker.

Arranger William Kidd richly delivers Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest instrumental, “The March of the Siamese Children.” Deeply miscalculated, though, is the casting of pop-thin voices of Noll, Burnham and Warren, who do nothing to erase memories of Yul Brynner, Gertrude Lawrence and such recent recorded King-Anna pairings as Ben Kingsley and Julie Andrews (nor does Barbra Streisand, recruited to sing a forgettable medley over end credits).

Vidnovic and Miranda Richardson efficiently do their voice work, but Ian Richardson steals the show with stentorian dread.

The King and I

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Morgan Creek production, in association with Rankin/Bass Prods. and Nest Entertainment. Produced by James G. Robinson, Arthur Rankin, Peter Bakalian. Executive producer, Robert Mandell. Directed by Richard Rich. Screenplay, Peter Bakalian, Jacqueline Feather, David Seidler; additional dialogue, Brian Nissen. Conceived and adapted for animation by Arthur Rankin from the musical by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics).

Crew

Executive music producer, Mark Berger; music co-producers, Terry L. Noss, Thomas J. Tobin; music arranged, orchestrated, conducted by William Kidd; widescreen; editor, James D. Koford; animation production manager, Brett Hayden; character design, Bronwen Barry, Elena Kravets, Michael Coppieters; supervising animators, Patrick Gleeson, Colm Duggan; sound (Dolby SDDS and DTS), Michael Casper, Dan Leahy, Rick Hart; sound recordist, Charlie Ajar Jr.; casting, Geoffrey Johnson, Vincent Liff. Reviewed at Warner Hollywood Studios, L.A., March 11, 1999. MPAA rating: G. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Anna Leonowens - Miranda Richardson
Anna's singing - Christiane Noll
The King of Siam - Martin Vidnovic
The Kralahome - Ian Richardson
Master Little - Darrell Hammond
Prince Chululongkorn - Allen D. Hong
Prince's singing - David Burnham
Tuptim - Armi Arabe
Tuptim's singing - Tracy Venner Warren
Louis Leonowens - Adam Wylie
Sir Edward Ramsay - Sean Smith
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