The King and I: Live action (1956) vs Cartoon (1999)

In an age where Disney is churning out live-action re-makes one nail-biting release at a time (they've been good so far, but that doesn't mean there's not going to be a travesty somewhere along the line) it's odd to think that it sometimes works the other way around. I saw the 1999 20th Century Fox re-make of The King and I at the cinema (and enjoyed it!) so I don't feel the same animosity towards that version as some do. Still, I can appreciate it's ridiculousness, and I thought it was time for a review. 

(For other cartoon/live-action comparisons, see Anastasia and The Jungle Book.)

The King and I is (loosely) based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, a British woman who travelled to Siam (now Thailand, if you were wondering) to become schoolmistress to the children of King Mongkut, in the late 18th century. There have been multiple adaptations of the story, but the most famous was released in 1956 and won five academy awards, including Best Actor for Yul Brynner, who made the role of the King his own. The Cartoon didn't do quite so well - in fact it bombed at the box office and was slated by critics and audiences alike.

As The King and I was a famous stage musical (by Rodgers and Hammerstein) before Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr took it on, you could be forgiven for thinking that the cartoon isn't technically a re-make. The selection of songs is slightly different  (I'll come to that later) and most of the iconic dialogue used also comes directly from the show. But - apart from some very random additions - the scenes, costumes and even Yul Brynner's bald head, are closely copied, and the film seems designed to look very much like the classic musical. 


Saying that, there are significant differences between the cartoon and the original. And I can understand why they thought this was necessary - The King and I is an odd choice to re-make as a children's film when you think about it. Yes, there are songs, and children, but there the suitability ends. There's not much action, it ends sadly and the central themes of a man at war with himself, eighteenth century cultural differences and polygamy must have made it a difficult sell. So how does the cartoon deal with all this? Well, first of all, they add animals (Louis has a pet monkey and the king a pet panther) and magic. The Kralahome ( the Siamese prime minister, who in the original film is merely a bit sceptical of Anna and her western ideas) has become the arch villain. From his underground lair he plots the downfall of the King so that he can become ruler of Siam and...bring back the ivory trade? He has two elephants that he keeps locked in a cage, a politically incorrect side-kick named Master Little and a giant magic-mirror like contraption, through which he summons monsters, including a sea monster to frighten Anna on her voyage from England and statues to creep up on the King during "A Puzzlement."

Another issue, inexpertly tackled, is Tuptim. In the original, she is one of the King's wives, recently gifted to him from the King of Burma and still in love with the man who brought her from her own country. In the cartoon, she's still a gift to the King, but she's given as a servant, not a wife. Her job? To arrange flowers. That's literally it. She falls in love with the Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (who is aged up in this version) which creates the conflict as 'servant girl and prince - is forbidden!'  Actually, the Tuptim thing was probably one of the cartoon's better ideas - but a flower arranger, really? The cartoon sort of skirts around the subject of the King's wives in general, maybe to avoid awkward questions about Anna and the King's relationship. I know as a child, I always wanted Anna and the King to get together, conveniently forgetting he was already married many times over.

The most bizarre difference between the two films though, is probably the ending. In the 1956 film you don't really find out what happened to Tuptim after the nearly-getting-whipped incident. In real life (as I was devastated to discover as a kid, after watching a King and I documentary) she was burned at the stake. In the cartoon she escapes with Chulalongkorn and Anna's son Louis (???)  on the back of some white elephants. The Kralahome tries to lure them to their deaths at the 'ancient place of the elephants' but the King has a change of heart, chases them in his hot air balloon and rescues Tuptim, before the balloon is shot down with firework cannons by the Kralahome. Oh, and the King lives.

Basically, the cartoon is very, very odd. But it does have it's good points. No - really! The voice acting isn't bad, and Miranda Richardson makes a good Anna. Aside from the weirdness the basics of the story are still there, and despite being what you might call 'disneyfied' (comedy animal sidekicks etc.) they don't over sanitise the story, and all the important scenes are included, even (as mentioned above) that moment when Tuptim nearly gets beaten to death. And that's dark stuff.  A big positive about the cartoon is that it includes some songs that were missing from the 1956 adaptation of the musical.  Out of the stage show's two duets between the young lovers, the old film opted only to include 'We Kiss in a Shadow' while the cartoon uses 'I have Dreamed' instead. I like both, but if I had to choose I'd definitely go for the latter. I'm not the biggest fan of 'Shall I tell you What I think of you' but that's in the cartoon too, while it's missing from both the 1999 and the 1956. 'Western people funny' was omitted from both films, and I've got to say, that was probably a wise choice.

(I Have Dreamed from the 1999 soundtrack)

As one of my early cinema memories, I'm rather fond of the animated King and I, but part of it's advantage was that it introduced me to the original. While not my favourite Rogers and Hammerstein (you can't beat Sound of Music can you?) it's still a classic. It's a bit slow, in the grand tradition of older films, but it's an interesting story, with some great scenes. The King is a fascinating, complex and strangely love-able character, despite his flaws, and the relationship between him and Anna makes the film for me. The acting between the two leads is great and the chemistry is palpable. I love the way the relationship builds, to the high point of 'Shall we Dance' - where you almost believe that something might happen between them -  and then Tuptim is found and everything comes crashing down. So dramatic!

(Shall we Dance from the 1956 film)

Aside from some un-pc overtones, the main weak point of the original King and I is the ending. Firstly, it's a bit of a downer. Secondly, what exactly is the King supposed to be dying of? He's been perfectly healthy up until now. They seem to suggest that he's dying of a broken heart, which feels out of place within the largely realistic plot (if it was the cartoon, this wouldn't be a problem, but even there they provide a proper reason for his illness... even if it is a hot air balloon accident.) In real life, Mongkut died of Malaria, but I guess that wouldn't be as dramatic. I probably don't need to bring up weak points in regards to the animated film, but I'd say the biggest problem there is Master Little. What's with the teeth falling out thing? And he's kind of racist -  not that the old film is perfect in that regard. I mean Tuptim is Anita from West Side Story and Yul Brynner is Russian. Are then any actual Thai people in this film at all? Some of the kids and the wives maybe.

Anyway. if you can stomach a bit of political incorrectness, both films are fun.Watch the old version for some fantastic acting, a shirtless Yul Brynner and actually quite a lot of humour. Watch the cartoon for the inclusion of 'I have dreamed' - and for a good laugh. Although in that case it's unintentional.


  1. Love these live action vs cartoon adaptations! I haven't seen the 1999 musical version though I remember watching trailers for it as a kid. I don't think I've fully watched the original 1956 musical either but I should do that sometime since its such a classic. :D

    1. Thanks! The cartoon's a bit odd, but I loved it as a kid :)


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