The Great ’90s Animated Film Project: “The King and I” (1999)

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
The Prince of Egypt,
Quest for Camelot,
The Iron Giant

Shall I tell you what I think of you, The King and I?

The animated film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical might be one of the most pandering, offensive and boring animated films ever made in the past two decades. The film’s director, Richard Rich, took a story about the clash of cultures and made it cute, lowering the stakes for the characters and adding a bumbling sidekick and some animal characters.

The King and I, a Warner Brothers release, came at the end of the ’90s when motion picture companies were starting to be bolder with the stories told and how they were being told. In 1999, Tarzan, The Iron Giant and Toy Story 2 were released, moving away from the traditional musical format of animated films in that decade. The King and I feels like a very poor attempt to clutch to the old format.

The King and I focuses on Anna Leonowens (Miranda Richardson speaking, Christiane Noll singing), a widowed schoolteacher who has arrived in Bangkok with her son Louis (Adam Wylie) to tutor King Mongkut’s (Martin Vidnovic) children. The King hopes that Anna’s schooling of his children will help with progress for Thailand, but the king’s evil prime minister, the Kralahome (Ian Richardson), who is assisted with his Asian Stereotype sidekick, Master Little (Darrell Hammond). Meanwhile, servant Tuptim (Armi Arabe speaking, Tracy Venner Warren singing) falls in love with the crown prince, Chulalongkorn (Allen D. Hong speaking, David Burnham singing), which is forbidden because of tradition.

That is the plot of the animated film. In the musical, the Kralahome isn’t an evil Rasputin-esque sorcerer and Master Little is absent. In the musical, Tuptim is one of King Mongkut’s many concubines and falls in love with Lun Tha, the man who presents her as a gift to the king. This of course means Tuptim’s faces higher stakes in the musical because she is in love with someone other than the king. Additionally, Lady Thiang, the king’s chief wife, is absent from this film. And all of the animals in the film are absent in the musical.

Even when Disney takes a story and makes it a feel good film at the end, there are still risks for the characters. Take The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is a far departure from the source material but still is a fascinating and dark film that manages to be kid friendly. The King and I seems like Richard Rich looked at Anastasia and decided to have the writing team copy the element of evil advisor, cute animals and slapstick comedy for the sidekick. The problem is that Anastasia handled this perfectly by having a terrifying antagonist that went to extremes to get what he wanted, Bartok wasn’t an offensive stereotypes of Russians or albino bats and the cute animal was just there, not being obnoxious or confusing as to why they are placed there.

This brings me to the worst aspect of The King and I: Master Little. The character is a short stout man with almond shaped eyes—I don’t think he had pupils—and perpetually falling teeth. The character speaks with an exaggerated East Asian accent while none of the other characters do so, although Tuptim sounds a bit like she’s Burmese Barbie. It is absolutely astounding that an animated film made in my lifetime features such an offensive stereotype.

But with the focus on the plotting of the Kralahome there isn’t much time for the audience to care about the other characters, which in a way is fine since the only real danger arrives at the end when King Mongkut becomes Action Hero Mongkut. Oh, and if you were curious, Mongkut lives in this version. In fact, everyone lives, including the Kralahome, which is a strange occurrence for a children’s film because usually even the antagonist dies or someone gets separated from the protagonist at the end.

There is only one good aspect of this film and that is the film has very nice bright colors used, but it isn’t important since the film is dull and has the weakest dramatic conflict committed to film. In some ways, it feels like the film is like an unsuccessful parody of animated films with the multitude of unnecessary animals and sidekicks. But if the film hadn’t used a classic musical as its source material, it might have felt less painful to watch.

The problem is that there are ultimately no virtues to be found in this film. It would still be awful if there wasn’t the classic Yul Brynner film or the non-singing live-action film Anna and the King that was released later in 1999. While it is no shock that the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization decided against ever having another animated film made using the musicals as a source material, it is truly astounding that someone decided this would be a good idea to make.

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