[Screen It]

(1999) (Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat) (PG-13)

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Drama: A mid-19th century English schoolteacher must cope with the King of Siam and his country's ways as she tries to educate his many children.
It's 1862 and English school teacher Anna Leonowens (JODIE FOSTER) has arrived in Bangkok to teach the fifty-eight children of King Mongkut (CHOW YUN-FAT), the ruler of Siam. At first, things are a bit tenuous for Anna in her new position. While her son Louis (TOM FELTON) seems to have no problem adjusting to this foreign culture, Anna is upset that the promise of a house for her and Louis outside the palace has been broken and that the King has yet to meet her some three weeks after her arrival.

Thus, Anna storms in to see the King, breaking all protocol and tradition and horrifying the monarch's advisors such as The Kralahome (SYED ALWI). Nonetheless, the King is somewhat impressed by Anna's tenacity and decides that she might be a worthy educator for teaching his children, including the heir to his throne, Prince Chulalongkorn (KEITH CHIN), about the ways of the Western world.

Mongkut is worried about his country falling behind the rest of the world and wishes to turn it into a major power by becoming as westernized as possible while still retaining Siam's traditions and culture. One of those is having many wives, and he's recently received a new one, Tuptim (BAI LING), into his fold, who's greeted by his main wife, Lady Thiang (DEANNA YUSOFF).

Even so, the King has more pressing concerns, what with recent attacks by neighboring Burmese soldiers on his people. Since Burma is controlled by Britain, Mongkut worries about that country's imperial ways, and his military advisors, including Prince Chowfa (LIM KAY SIU), his brother, and General Alak (RANDALL DUK KIM), urge that he take swift military action to quell the problem.

As Mongkut ponders over how to protect his country and its traditions while trying to bring it up to modern standards, he and Anna discover things about themselves and each other as romantic feelings begin to bud between the two.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Many things in life often cause people to stop and ponder, asking why certain things occur. For instance, why does the Earth keep rotating on it axis? Or why do fools fall in love? Then there's my favorite related to the fact that if nothing sticks to Teflon, how does it stick to the bottom of a pan?

The world of movies often elicits similar questions, such as why can't Hollywood routinely make better films and why do some really bad actors make millions starring in them? The one that comes to mind in most critics and serious films buffs, however, is why people love to remake films, especially well known classics such as "King Kong" and the recent Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho."

The reasons, of course, are varied and range from simply wanting to capitalize on the name and/or legend of the original, while others deal with the artists involved and their desire to tell the familiar story in a new, different and/or presumably better way.

All of which brings us to 20th Century Fox's release of "Anna and the King." Based on the diaries of real-life English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and her experiences with the King of Siam (although the validity of her accounts has since been questioned), the story has been told several times before.

In 1946 the film "Anna and King of Siam" -- that was adapted from Margaret Landon's book - was released, but many more viewers are familiar with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical and 1956 movie, "The King and I" (which was then retooled earlier this year in an altered cartoon version).

With the 1956 Deborah Kerr/Yul Brynner version being so beloved and well known by millions (it also received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, winning five) the question that follows is why make yet another version of this story?

Well, for starters, this one jettisons the musical numbers. For some viewers that might be tantamount to cinematic heresy and evoke similar disappointed reactions from fans as did the recent non-musical version of "Les Miserables" (despite the music not being an original component of either story).

This version also opens up the story in a far more visual sense, moving most of the "action" outdoors and away from the stuffy confines and shooting stages of the earlier films. The result is an absolutely gorgeous and stunning looking film, reminiscent of the way they use to make pictures.

From the fabulous production design by Luciana Arrighi ("Howards End," "The Remains of the Day") to the wonderful cinematography courtesy of Caleb Deschanel ("Fly Away Home," "The Natural") and from the sweeping and moving score by George Fenton (five time Oscar nominee including his work for "Gandhi" and "Dangerous Liaisons") to the great-looking costumes by Jenny Beavan ("Ever After," "Sense and Sensibility"), the film excels on all technical merits and is nothing short of sumptuous eye candy.

In keeping with the inquisitive nature of writing about this remake, though, one then wonders whether the film's thespian dimension can live up to its technical merits that at times would naturally seem to overwhelm it. Happily, I'm able to report that the leads hold their own and end up adding to the film's wonderful look.

Of course with Jodie Foster ("Contact," "The Silence of the Lambs") in the lead, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Foster's nearly always exuded a fierce determination that hides a more vulnerable side in many of her roles, and that type of performance works well for her character here.

The big surprise, however, at least for those only familiar with his appearances in martial arts-related films, is Chow Yun-Fat ("The Corruptor," "The Replacement Killers") as the King. Following in the footsteps of Yul Brynner in a well-known role is no easy task, but Yun-Fat is quite convincing and delivers a superb performance. While Brynner often played the character in something nearing monarchical buffoonery, Yun-Fat takes the more dignified and regal route, although he does allow for some vulnerability to seep through at times.

Supporting performances are okay, but suffer a bit from clearly not being given the same attention to fully blossom like the leads. While Tom Felton ("The Borrowers") and Syed Alwi (a Malaysian TV and stage performer) are decent as Anna's son and the King's main advisor respectively, Bail Ling ("Wild Wild West," "Red Corner") doesn't get the time to make her character as sympathetic as probably originally envisioned.

Director Andy Tennant ( "Fools Rush In" and the similarly lush, period romantic drama, "Ever After") works from a script by the screenwriting team of Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes ("Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," "Double Impact") and takes the film in a much different direction than director Walter Lang did with the 1956 version. Here, the romance between the leads buds far sooner, and the subplot concerning the invading Burmese becomes more and more prominent as the story progresses, eventually nearly overriding everything else and steering the film away from the ending of the musical.

That's not to say that it's not enjoyable, and while I went in to the film assuming that I wasn't going to like what appeared to be nothing more than an upscale, big budget remake, I actually found the film rather entertaining and enjoyable. With a decent number of genuine laughs to counter the darker moments and enough romance to appease those who liked "Ever After," the film should please fans of the old-fashioned, but grand style of moviemaking that's all but disappeared in today's market.

While it's not perfect and could have probably used one more trip through the editing process to trim some of its superfluous length, for the most part this is an entertaining and glorious looking production. As such, "Anna and the King" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 2, 1999 / Posted December 17, 1999

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