Director – Richard Rich, Screenplay – Peter Bakalian, Jacqueline Feather & David Seidler, Adaptation – Arthur Rankin, Based on the Musical by Oscar Hammerstein II & Richard Rodgers, Producers – Peter Bakalian, Arthur Rankin Jr & James G. Robinson, Music – Richard Rodgers, Lyrics – Oscar Hammerstein II, Music Adapated, Arranged & Conducted by William Kidd. Production Company – Morgan Creek/Rankin-Bass Productions/Nest Entertainment.
Miranda Richardson (Anna Leonowens), Martin Vidnovic (The King of Siam), Ian Richardson (The Kralahome), Darrell Hammond (Master Little), Allen D. Hong (Prince Chululongkorn), Adam Wylie (Louis Leonowens), Armi Arabe (Tuptim), Sean Smith (Sir Edward Ramsey)
English schoolmistress Anna Leonowens arrives in Siam to take up a position as tutor to the king’s children. Her strong-mindedness soon clashes with the King’s equally strong-minded sense of tradition. Meanwhile, the king’s son begins a forbidden romance with a servant girl. The scheming Prime Minister, who is also a black sorcerer, is determined to exploit both Anna’s position and the prince’s breaking with tradition as a way of showing the king to be an ignorant barbarian before the British and having himself declared ruler.
While the rest of mainstream cinema seemed hellbent on remaking 1960s tv series throughout the 1990s, in an intriguing move animation for a time seemed to turn further back to remaking 1950s musicals. First up was Anastasia (1997), Don Bluth’s animated remake of the 1956 musical. The King and I is director Richard Rich’s animated remake of the film adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic The King and I (1956). In some ways, these animated adaptations of musicals make a surprising degree of sense. Most animated films are lumbered with songs (even though most children usually squirm through these) and musicals tend to work on simplified melodramatic emotions that rarely work in the real world but seem surprisingly well suited to the realms of animated caricature.
Like Bluth, Richard Rich is a Disney expat – he co-directed both The Fox and the Hound (1981) and The Black Cauldron (1985) then broke away to start his own animation studio. Richard Rich’s previous work has been mostly made-for-video adaptations of Bible stories – Joseph in Egypt (1992), Abraham and Isaac (1992) and Moses (1993) – but Rich had a breakthrough with The Swan Princess (1994), a surprisingly good animated fairy-tale that in its own unassuming modesty surpassed much of the glintzier high-profile Disney product.
Rich subsequently went onto the likes of The Scarecrow (2000), The Trumpet of the Swan (2001), Muhammed: The Last Prophet (2004) and eight sequels to The Swan Princess, as well as to produce Alpha and Omega (2010) and then directed three video sequels Alpha and Omega 2: A Howl-iday Adventure (2013), Alpha and Omega 3: The Great Wolf Games (2014), Alpha and Omega: The Legend of the Saw Toothed Cave (2014) and Alpha and Omega: Family Vacation (2015).
With The King and I, Rich surprisingly falls flat. Rather than opening the story up, The King and I is an oddly leaden adaptation where Rich’s concept seems to have been simply to follow the original almost scene for scene but for the addition of slapstick. This slapstick element is often intensely annoying. The scenes with the fat, bumbling character of Master Little go on and on in prolongedly sadistic ways – when a film makes a virtue out of a character losing every one of his teeth one at a time, even if the character is only a caricatured villain, the effect is surely one of sadism.
Furthermore, the quality of the animation is disappointingly flat. The Swan Princess did not have the stunning 3D visuals of recent Disney film but had far more liveliness than The King and I, which seems barely two steps above the two-dimensional minimalism of Hanna-Barbera’s tv product. The few moments of computer animation the film does squeeze in – the images of the British ship, a scene with Thai statues coming to life – only tend to highlight the poor quality of handdrawn animation on show elsewhere.
The film does briefly pick up toward the end – the two principal characters’ stubbornness eventually emerges to give the film some life, even if it is only a pale shadow of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr’s prickliness in the original. There is also a hot-air balloon rescue climax where Richard Rich manages to wield the limited animation in a mildly engaging way.