Holiday time is family time at the movies, and Hollywood never fails to notice box-office opportunities. Two of the season's most heavily promoted family films arrive this week, both offering a mixture of kid-friendly excitement and adult-oriented nostalgia. Each has its virtues, but it's unlikely that the mild-mannered exoticism of "Anna and the King" will capture as many hearts as the whimsical humor of "Stuart Little."
Anna and the King is based on the memoir by Anna Leonowens that also inspired "The King and I," the classic 1956 musical. More than one moviemaker has been drawn to this story lately - an animated version was one of last summer's flops - and the latest version isn't short of star power. Jodie Foster plays the English schoolteacher who tutors a Siamese prince and enters a deliciously complex relationship with his regal father, played with aplomb by Chow Yun-Fat, an action specialist looking to diversify his career.
The makers of "Anna and the King" leaned over backwards to differentiate their movie from its 1956 predecessor. The musical numbers are gone, the subplot about a forbidden love affair is different, and perfunctory adventure scenes have been added. The result still seems like a half-hearted throwback to the '50s - neither modern enough to please young viewers nor persuasive enough to bring old-fashioned styles convincingly alive.
Most important, Chow's capable acting is no match for the memory of Yul Brynner's astonishing performance in the original movie. Since it's available on home video, this is one case where a trip to the rental outlet will pay larger dividends than a visit to the theater.
Stuart Little is more fun than "Anna and the King," turning E.B. White's lovely book into a romp as likable and amusing as its hero. He's a mouse with a human-sized vocabulary and a yen for family living, standing him in good stead when he's adopted by a mom and dad who want to give their son a little brother. Complications arise when a mouse couple arrive on the doorstep claiming to be his real parents. Things eventually work out fine, but Stuart and his household first pass through several hair-raising scrapes.
Told through a mixture of animation and live action, "Stuart Little" lacks the subtle sense of mystery that distinguished White's book, but nicely conveys its playful spirit and amiable tone.
*'Anna and the King,' rated PG-13, contains violence. 'Stuart Little,' rated PG, has mild violence and suspense.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society