A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this film characterizes the ancient Asian culture of Siam (now Thailand) as backward and sexist. The king has dozens of wives and hundreds of children, which may bewilder kids. Also confusing, the roles of the main Thai characters are played by white and Latino Americans. But the story's music and enchanting characters are perfect for kids, who are likely to see the king's poor grasp of English as endearing and fun. But older children and adults may find the portrayal of the king racist.
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What's the story?
The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is based on Margaret Langdon's 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, which itself is based on the true story of Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr), an English woman in the 1800s who, after her husband dies, takes a job as teacher to the multitude of children sired by the King of Siam, King Mongkut. Anna finds when she arrives that the job and her new life are both more wonderful and more frustrating than she could have imagined. The children of the palace are delightful and sweet, and the king (played by Yul Brynner, who won an Academy Award for the role) is enchanting and progressive, but also very sexist. She's confronted with the king's dozens of wives as well as European beliefs that the king, who wants to make his reign "modern" and "scientific," is a barbarian. Can she take care of herself, her young son, and her charges, and help the king keep his kingdom?
Is it any good?
Like Breakfast at Tiffany's and Flower Drum Song, THE KING AND I is a classic movie with legions of followers and great music. But it's also, like those films, fraught with racial misrepresentation that may make some viewers uncomfortable. The real treat of this film is the charm of Brynner's king and the songs. The songs! Children will love "Getting to Know You" and "Whistle a Happy Tune." Romantics will love "Shall We Dance." And all viewers will likely be mesmerized by the performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
To a young child, the king's silly sayings -- like his dramatic "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera" -- and his odd dictated letter offering to send the U.S. some elephants as beasts of burden, are endearing and fun. But adults may be disturbed by how inept and parochial this king appears. Add to that the fact that none of the primary Asian characters are played by Asian actors, and you have a recipe for racial misrepresentation. Like Flower Drum Song and Mickey Rooney's appalling Asian caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the Asian characters here are shown as meek, silly, and absurd. Anna is a remarkably strong woman for the 1860s, which makes for some great verbal sparring between her and the king. But the idea of a white woman coming into a foreign country and "civilizing" them -- while it sure goes with the thinking of the time period -- is disturbing.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Thai history and culture. Were the clothes, dance styles, and culture in the movie true to the culture?
What do you think about movies that don't cast Asian actors in Asian roles? Can you think of other examples of that happening?
Do you think you could play the role of someone of a different race fairly? Do you think the actors in this film were fair?
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