Film: Jodie Foster plays feisty (again)

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The Independent Culture
Anna and the King (12)

Andy Tennant; 151 mins

The Iron Giant (U)

Brad Bird; 86 mins

What exactly is it with Anna Leonowens, the widowed English governess whose sojourn in 19th-century Siam as schoolmistress to the monarch's 58 offspring has already inspired a 1940s film (Anna and the King of Siam, the latter played, most implausibly, by Rex Harrison), a 1950s Broadway musical (The King and I, starring you-know-who as the King), a 1950s movie adaptation of the musical and, earlier this very year, a cartoon version of the same show? Why should she have had almost as many stage and screen incarnations as Joan of Arc? It's especially baffling as, according to the new movie's press kit, Leonowens's diaries, from which all of this material has been distilled, are now widely discredited. It seems that, when it came to her romantic, if primly platonic, attachment to her royal employer, Anna was something of a wishful thinker.

Or perhaps it's not so baffling. The role is a juicy one for an actress no longer quite in her prime. Even if she had a tendency to mythicise both her charm and her influence, Leonowens was patently a plucky, self- possessed woman, the kind that nowadays would be called "feisty". Nowadays, I say - and that's precisely the problem with Jodie Foster's anachronistic (and, frankly, rather graceless) interpretation. Her Anna, obstinately refusing to kneel before royalty, gutsily insisting that she be treated as an equal, would have shocked 19th-century London, let alone 19th-century Bangkok. As a result, the abyss which must have existed between Siam's values and those of the historical Anna Leonowens is smudged by an ill- judged endeavour to render the character "relevant" to a contemporary audience.

Let's not get carried away, though. No one any longer gives two hoots for the historical Anna. The real question is whether a public still exists for a big, splashy, family entertainment like Anna and the King. I wonder.

For a start, some of it - genocide, that sort of thing - is probably too scary for the tots who presumably form part of its targeted audience. It's also too leisurely, not to say boring, both for them and the rest of us. A running time of 151 minutes (that one extra minute just adds insult to injury) is a grotesque indulgence on the part of a director, someone called Andy Tennant, of whom few of us have ever heard - but I'm getting tired of making that point.

It is, to be sure, fantastically spectacular, with breathtaking crane shots towering over jungly exteriors, lots of elephants and a cast, literally, of thousands. Aye, but there's the rub. "A cast of thousands"? When did you last hear that slogan used to publicise a movie? Spectacle in the current Hollywood cinema has everything to do with special effects and next to nothing to do with crowds of extras. The main commercial drawback of Anna and the King is that it's extremely old-fashioned, reminiscent of those 20th Century-Fox roadshow blockbusters of the late 1950s, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and South Pacific, which specialised in lushly filmed exotica and suave, dulcet-voiced, racially indiscriminate leading men. Whether such a formula will work for spectators weaned on Men in Black and The Matrix, many of whom, moreover, have vacationed in the Far East - which wasn't the case in the 1950s - strikes me as very moot indeed.

Brad Bird's The Iron Giant is a cartoon version of The Iron Man, Ted Hughes's children's tale about a small boy who befriends an enormous robot after it plummets out of the heavens, a tale written by the poet to comfort his own two children in the wake of their mother's - Sylvia Plath's - suicide. The action has been transplanted to a dozy hamlet in Maine in 1957, during that paranoid era following the launch of the first Sputnik, and the book's slightly chilling tone has been, shall we say, slightly toned down.

If that sounds like a blueprint for a typically Hollywoodian exercise in crassness and vulgarity, miraculously it isn't so. The film is a peach. Bird is a veteran of The Simpsons, and his visuals are witty and clean, with a hint of the celebrated ligne claire of Herge's Tintin albums. The characterisations are cute without being mawkish (when the Giant idly twiddles his gross metal thumbs, he calls to mind nothing so much as the original King Kong), the animation appears to have been executed cel by cel, as in the palmy days of the earliest Disney features, there are some pretty good jokes and the ending is genuinely affecting.

In fact, Ted Hughes is a red herring. The model for the film, and doubtless the reason for its having been made in the first place, is ET. There is the same forlorn alien otherness, the same single-parent environment, the same distrust of the military establishment, the same Christ-like trajectory (from a nativity to a crucifixion to the implication of a resurrection), even the same quintessentially Spielbergian juxtaposition of the supernatural and the hyper-natural - Bird reprises more than once the Master's pet trope of flashing lights eerily raking a nocturnal forest.

Unlike ET, however, The Iron Giant was a flop in America - mystifyingly, to my mind - which all but guarantees that it's going to be a flop here. British cinema audiences have increasingly come to resemble successive British governments. They do what the Americans do, think what the Americans think, like what the Americans like.

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