I know what you’re thinking, “What does Anna and the King have to do with the number five”? Well, I’m glad you asked! As Rebecca has stated in the announcement post for the Fifth Broadway Bound Blogathon, all entries had to have something to do with the number five, to commemorate the event’s fifth anniversary. For my selection, Anna and the King, which stars Bai Ling, was released in 1999, five years after The Crow premiered. From what I’ve heard, The Crow was Bai Ling’s first American/English film. Last year, when I reviewed the 1956 adaptation of The King and I, I mentioned Anna and the King was a non-musical version of the story. As I write this review, I realize I haven’t seen many non-musical film adaptations of musicals. Sure, I’ve heard of these types of productions. But, off the top of my head, a non-musical adaptation doesn’t immediately come to mind. So, with this review, I will expand my cinematic horizons!
Things I liked about the film:
The acting: Anna and the King is a drama film with a more serious tone. Therefore, Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Anna is sterner in nature. However, Anna also comes across as being fair. A great example of this is when she is disciplining both her son and King Mongkut’s eldest son. In the evening, when the royal family is bringing Anna dinner, Jodie presents a mild-mannered sweetness that feels genuine. As she’s realizing the dinner is for her and not King Mongkut’s son, Anna never displays any meanness toward her student, as she truly wants to teach him a valuable lesson. King Mongkut himself is also a stern, yet fair character. Chow Yun-fat balances the seriousness and loving sides of his character consistently throughout the film. In one of their many conversations, King Mongkut is asked by Anna if his wives ever get jealous of one another. Even though this question is a personal one, King Mongkut never appears offended. Instead, his calm, collected, and approachable demeanor make the conversation less awkward than it could have gotten. One of these aforementioned wives is Tuptim. Portrayed by Bai Ling, Tuptim is an emotional character that expresses herself in subtle ways. It’s not until she faces a life-or-death moment where more of her emotions are drawn forward. While I won’t spoil Anna and the King for those of my readers who might be interested in seeing it, Bai delivers on the emotional intensity needed for a moment like the one I just mentioned. But even outside of that moment, Bai knows how to use emotion in her and her character’s favor.
The set design: Anna and the King is a beautiful looking film! One of the reasons why is its set design. Everywhere you look, exquisite detail and impressive structure helped elevate the world around Anna and King Mongkut. The royal family takes a trip in a massive river boat. This boat was a deep blue with gold etched artwork. At the head of the boat, a set of giant golden dragons adorn this beautiful mode of transportation. On the walls of King Mongkut’s palace, a full-length mural consistently coats the interior perimeter of rooms and even a hallway. The mural itself appears painted, depicting the natural landscape of Siam. Smaller elements like the ones I mentioned added to the overall beauty of the set design!
The costume design: Similar to the 1956 adaptation, the costume design in Anna and the King was simply elegant! One notable example was Anna’s reception gown. At this event, Anna wore a full length, white gown. The off the shoulder bodice and sparkly skirt was not only eye-catching, it also felt reminiscent of Belle’s gown from the 1991 animated film, Beauty and the Beast. At this same reception, King Mongkut’s wives also wear beautiful gowns. Tuptim’s was especially pretty, a simple yet classy red dress. What also complimented Tuptim’s ensemble was a sparkly gold and bronze crown that adorned her dark hair. The exquisiteness of the costume design carried the spirit of The King and I story!
What I didn’t like about the film:
The war story-line: Because Anna and the King is a non-musical version of The King and I, there needs to be something to replace the musical numbers. In the 1999 adaptation, that replacement was a subplot about a war between the Siamese and the Burmese. While it was interesting to explore the tense side of ruling a country, I found this subplot to be the weakest one. That subplot was drawn-out, getting resolved at the very end of the movie. With the run-time being two hours and twenty-eight minutes, the war story-line felt longer than it really was.
Under-utilized characters: Anna and the King contains a larger cast of characters. Therefore, some of them are bound to receive less screen-time than others. Tuptim was, once again, one of those characters. After seeing how under-utilized Rita Moreno’s talents were in the 1956 adaptation, I was hoping Bai Ling would receive more screen time. Sadly, she only appeared in a handful of scenes. In the 1956 adaptation, Tuptim created a play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, giving her a reason to stay on screen a little bit longer. Because there is no Uncle Tom’s Cabin play in the 1999 adaptation and because only King Mongkut’s oldest son reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tuptim, in Anna and the King, has less reasons to stay on screen.
No musical Easter eggs: Before I wrote this review, I was well aware Anna and the King was not a musical film. But because the film is an adaptation of a musical, it was a missed opportunity to not include musical related Easter eggs. In the 1956 adaptation, King Mongkut says “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” on multiple occasions, whenever he had something important to say. In the 1999 adaptation, however, King Mongkut never says the aforementioned quote. One of the songs from the 1956 adaptation is ‘Shall We Dance?’. During both versions of this story, King Mongkut and Anna dance with one another. However, it would have been nice to hear one of them say “shall we dance.”
My overall impression:
Anna and the King is a fine, competently made film. The movie’s creative team clearly knew what they doing, displaying the clear direction they wanted to take their adaptation. But compared to the 1956 musical, I find myself liking the musical more. Without the musical numbers, it feels like the story is missing something. Even though the 1999 adaptation found a replacement for the lack of musical numbers, I was wishing they hadn’t been omitted. I would have even accepted Easter eggs related to the musical, such as quotes from the songs woven into the dialogue. But despite its shortcomings, Anna and the King does attempt to make meaningful changes that were not in the 1956 musical. One of these changes is giving Anna’s son, Louis, and some of King Mongkut’s children their own unique personalities and a little more involvement in the overall story. As for Bai Ling’s involvement in the film, I wish she was given more on-screen appearances. But because Anna and the King is based on The King and I, which also showed Tuptim in only a handful of scenes, maybe I was naïve to think more material was available?
Overall score: 7.2 out of 10
Have you seen Anna and the King or The King and I? Can you think of any musicals that received a non-musical adaptation? Let me know in the comment section!
Have fun at the movies!