Natural Disaster

The film suffers from the same problem; despite an appealing performance from Parsons, her character is a blank page, too easily influenced by the others in her life to reveal a personality of her own. Swan and Parsons try to turn this feature to their advantage, using comic fantasy scenes to illustrate Nia's various attempts at developing a literary persona, but it's a joke that wears thin. Although some of the characters raise interesting points about race, others -- Nia's liberal Jewish father the worst example -- are merely stereotypes; the film isn't always careful about distinguishing satire from cliche. Swan's obvious talent as a director is undermined by her lack of experience as a screenwriter, resulting in a film that looks good but takes too many narrative shortcuts. Technically impressive but dramatically muddled, Mixing Nia is a promising debut of a director who, like her heroine, is clearly on the way to finding herself.

Given that one of Mixing Nia's most insightful moments comes from the heroine's struggle with her conscience while working for an ad agency, it's ironic that Swan's film is sharing screen space at Webster this week with The World's Best Commercials 1998, an annual compilation of advertising films. Few films, after all, are less independent than the average 30-second commercial, produced to meet the demands of a corporate client, increasingly extravagant in scale and limited in content to little more than a shrill "Buy this now!"

As usual in these collections -- this one of 96 commercials from 22 countries -- there are clever moments and several strong public-service announcements (none, however, from the U.S., where PSAs appear only in the wee hours of the morning when TV stations get tired of running the Tae-Bo infomercial). But there's also a relentless sameness in approach, regardless of the nationality of the ad or the product being sold. As commercials get shorter, sight gags and shock value become the most important -- sometimes the only -- way to get the message across, often with an emphasis on crass humor and bodily functions parading as innovation or invention. Consider, for example, a Dutch spot for a language school, touted in the press release as "the media's choice for best ad ... daringly original ... an ad you would never see on North American screens": A family sits in a car while a song from the radio repeatedly blares, in English, "I want to fuck you in the ass." Is this an incentive for the product being advertised? Ah, isn't it good that U.S. advertisers have something to aspire to?

Mixing Nia plays at 7 p.m. March 18 and The World's Best Commercials 1998 at 7 & 8:30 p.m. March 19-20 at Webster University.

-- Robert Hunt

THE KING AND I
Directed by Richard Rich

Imagine a bunch of kids watching the classic 1956 film musical The King and I on television, then going outside and spending the rest of the afternoon acting it out in the backyard. Apart from a lack of hired-gun Broadway voices performing the songs, their re-creation might not be too different from Morgan Creek's new animated version of the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein chestnut.

Anna still comes to 19th-century Siam (now Thailand) for a gig as governess to the King's many children. But this time, she and her son come on a ship that's fighting its way through a raging tempest, and they sing "I Whistle a Happy Tune" to dissipate the illusions of menacing dragons that have been conjured up by the Kralahome. Remember the Kralahome? The Siamese prime minister was a stern but not sinister figure in the original musical. Here, envelopingly voiced by Ian Richardson, he's a wicked sorcerer who watches the action on a magic gong and is scheming to seize the throne and -- in a surefire touch of PC villainy -- get rich in the ivory trade.

In other words, he's been turned into a standard-issue animated-feature villain. And he comes complete with a standard-issue groveling sidekick, a roly-poly Lucky-Buddha caricature called Master Little, voiced by the gifted Saturday Night Live comic Darrell Hammond with such a broad chop-suey accent that, if the film wasn't animation, he'd likely be pilloried by racial anti-defamation groups (this may happen anyway).

The childlike embellishments don't stop there, however. There are cute little animal pals -- a monkey for Anna's son, a baby elephant called Tusker and a stately black panther who attends the King. Tuptim, the Burmese concubine who's the heroine of the play's romantic subplot, is here in love with the King's oldest son. Bafflingly, she has jade-green eyes. There's a big chase finale in which the King rides to the rescue of these lovers in a hot-air balloon while the Kralahome tries to shoot him down with fireworks. Honestly, I'm not putting you on about any of this.

It was apparently Arthur Rankin, of the same redoubtable Rankin/Bass studios that gave us such children's faves as Mad Monster Party and the wonderful, slyly subversive Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, that we have to thank for this stupefyingly weird retrofitting; he's credited with having "conceived and adapted for animation" the project. The director is Richard Rich, who did The Black Cauldron. For the encrustation of obligatory elements, like the hokey bad guys and the cutesy critters, we can point the finger at Disney, who has established a formula for profitable, cross-marketable animated features that is almost as rigidly ritualized as Kabuki.

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