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Anna and the King: Special Edition

20th Century Fox Home Video

Starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat

Written by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes
Directed by Andy Tennant

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

On first hearing that a new version of the story of Anna and the King of Siam was being filmed, one might have been compelled, as I was, to wonder why in the hell anyone would feel the need to do such a thing. But then one would probably laugh heartily, thinking of remakes of TV shows such as "The Avengers" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" and films like The Island of Dr. Moreau, realizing that there are far worse choices that idea-dead studio execs could make as far as digging up the chilly corpse of some long-ago, perfectly marvelous property that really doesn't need an update.

And upon hearing that the roles in the new film Anna and the Kingwere being played by Jodie Foster and Chow-Yun Fat, one might also have shared my mixed feelings that, firstly, Chow Yun-Fat would be absolutely marvelous as the King. And, second, that Jodie Foster — a lovely, watchable and very talented actress — seemed strikingly miscast as Anna. And you would have been right on the money on both counts.

For a director, you would doubtless assume that the studio would go with someone who had a solid background helming large-scale epics and, preferably, had some sort of background in Asian culture. Director Andy Tennant's background is largely in television, most notably "Sliders," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and the made-for-TV movie "The Amy Fisher Story" (the good one, at least — the one with Drew Barrymore). His most recent feature films were Ever After (also with Drew Barrymore) and Fools Rush In, starring Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek, the combination of which must have seemed ideal to ... well, someone in a decision-making capacity. "Hey, he made a movie with castles and lots of outdoor scenery stuff. And before that, he made a movie about a white person and a non-white person falling in love. He's perfect!" (NOTE: having written the previous as a joke, it makes me very sad to read it over and acknowledge that, unfortunately, that probably really was the thinking behind giving him the job).

Mr. Tennant (I don't know him well enough to call him Andy), tries very, very hard to make up for his shortcomings in Anna and the King by surrounding himself with talent and then using the heck out of their work. Production designer Luciana Arrighi has created a splendorous, colorful, multi-textured world that is so beautiful and detailed that Tennant can't help constantly sweeping his camera over it, as if he's afraid he somehow won't get his money's worth if he doesn't dolly through every scene, Merchant-Ivory style. George Fenton's score is marvelous — but it's so pervasive that it starts to almost parody itself, cueing every single moment in the film like a laugh track, with a swell of violins signaling "grandeur here!" or "look out — bad guys plotting something now."

Anna and the King doesn't deserve a total trashing, though. True, the script (by the writing team of Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, who previously brought us the Van Damme epic Double Impact, as well as laboring in the steno pool on the Frankie-and-Annette TV-movie Back to the Beach and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) is awful. But the film really is lovely to look at if you don't pay much attention to the words and, well — it has Chow Yun-Fat. Simply put, no one else could play the role of King Mongkut with such self-confidence, warmth and quiet sex appeal. The man is the biggest movie star in the world for reason, dammit. His screen presence makes it somewhat understandable that this English schoolteacher would fall for an overbearing foreigner with 23 wives and 42 concubines, which was the main weakness in both the 1946 version and with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical treatment The King and I. I mean, Rex Harrison with eyeliner just wasn't sexy. And Yul Brenner, while extremely manly and exotic for 1956, played the King as a pushy, self-centered jerk. (Interestingly, Yul Brenner reinterpreted the role in 1972 for the short-lived TV series "Anna and the King." Brenner was ill with cancer and, by all accounts, the show took an unfortunate sitcom tone).

As for Jodie Foster ... well, first of all she's stepping into the shoes of Irene Dunne and Deborah Kerr. Aside from the aforementioned miscasting, the question that must be asked is this: why-oh-why didn't she get Gwyneth Paltrow's dialect coach? Did she learn nothing from Sommersby? Or Maverick, for that matter? Or is it simply that no one in Hollywood has the guts to tell Jodie that she has no facility for any accent beyond that mid-Southern white-trash drawl she worked up for The Accused and Silence of the Lambs? Please, someone tell her. Soon.

Fox's Anna and the King: Special Edition DVD features a crisp widescreen transfer (2.35:1) and rich sound in Dolby Digital 5.1. Five featurettes are offered, all cobbled together from mostly the same footage and interviews but focusing on different aspects of the production, including production design, costume design and animal training. Six deleted scenes are included, with the option of director commentary — a nice touch, giving the viewer the chance to hear why, exactly, the scenes weren't used. Also includes an "HBO First Look" featurette, the theatrical trailer, and a music video by Joy Enriquez of the song "How Can I Not Love You," which is heard over the film's closing credits.

— Dawn Taylor

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