Film: The Forbidden Kingdom

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This should have been up on cm-life.com a couple of days ago, but due to technical difficulties and the wizardry of WordPress, here is my review of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and some incompetent little kid in “The Forbidden Kingdom.”

In coming years, “The Forbidden Kingdom” may be looked back upon fondly by the children who grew up with it, similarly to how “The NeverEnding Story” and “Hook” are looked upon today.

“The Forbidden Kingdom” clearly takes cues from those movies and their kin, and will likely also be adored by children and scoffed at by adults.

The plot, essentially “NeverEnding Story,” smashed together with the Chinese folklore of the Monkey King, is steeped in mythology and martial arts philosophizing. At its core, however, it is a simple tale of good versus evil and a boy becoming a man, and is very easy to follow and understand.

Michael Angarano (“Sky High”) plays Jason, an outcast teen obsessed with kung fu movies. When he is bullied into helping local thugs rob the pawn shop he buys movies at, he stumbles upon a mysterious staff, which transports him to the ancient China of lore.

These early scenes are rather disjointed and unconvincing, but once the setting changes to China, the style and pace of the film click. The meat of the story is a straightforward quest to overthrow an evil warlord (Collin Chou, Seraph in the “Matrix” sequels) and return a hero to glory.

Jackie Chan and Jet Li both appear to guide and teach Jason on his journey. Chan is the highlight of every scene he appears in, displaying the “drunken kung fu” that first made him famous three decades ago.

Li does not fare quite as well. Though he manages to hold his own throughout the movie, much of his dialogue is poorly delivered, and he falls into the shadow of Chan, clearly the superior film actor. When the talking stops and the punching begins, both actors shine brightly, and make it clear why they are crossover superstars.

The major reason for anybody to see this movie is the fantastic martial arts action. Where the dialogue often falters, the fighting, choreographed by kung fu go-to guy Woo-Ping Yuen, is thrilling and creative. The highlight of the entire movie is the fight between Li and Chan when they first meet. For martial arts film fans, watching the movie is justifiable for this scene alone. As the movie goes on after the two befriend each other, the audience may hope for one of them to turn evil, just so they will keep fighting.

Complimenting the fight scenes are the visual and sound design of the movie. Camera angles invoke memories of the Shaw Brothers fantasy kung fu films of the 70s, and the color palette is lush and vivid. The sound design is similarly lush. Sound effects are delightfully overstated, again as a throw back to old school kung fu flicks.

A very charming and creative touch is when a character is using a kung fu style based on an animal, as many are, sound effects of the corresponding animal are worked into the background as they strike. When Chan’s character uses Tiger Style, a tiger’s roar can be heard when he punches, for example.

Michael Angarano gets in on the fighting action as well, taking a role in the movie somewhere between the stereotypical “young grasshopper” and Dorothy from “Wizard of Oz.” While he actually performs admirably in the fight scenes, his acting and line delivery is even more undesirable than Li. Furthermore, Angarano does not have the excuse of English being his second language. As the inevitable conclusion looms, it is hard to empathize with his character’s journey and growth.

“The Forbidden Kingdom” is a superfluous fairy tale film. Fans of films like “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” will probably enjoy the inventiveness of the fight scenes, but children will find even more to like. This is a kung fu film through Disney-tinted glasses, thrilling and dynamic, yet ultimately shallow and unsubstantial.

–Brad Canze, the CM Life Movie Dude

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