The Forbidden Kingdom
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Casey Silver Production
When I saw The Forbidden Kingdom advertised as a martial arts action film starring both Jackie Chan and Jet Li, I couldn’t help but feel that it was too good to be true, despite its all-star casting and such behind-the-scenes names as action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping and composer Harry Gregson-Williams.
Directed by Rob Minkoff, The Forbidden Kingdom attempts to present itself as a magical martial arts journey, full of complicated fighting, scenic landscapes and a compelling storyline. Instead, it comes off as a trip through a 12-year-old video game enthusiast’s Asian dreamland, packed with flashy staff wielding and airbrush-attractive female warriors. Minkoff, whose other works include The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little and The Lion King, effectively turned what could have been a serious martial arts film (as it was advertised) into a Disney-esque adventure that could have just as easily starred a bunch of pirates, Nicolas Cage or a fuzzy CGI panda.
The film begins with Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), a teenage kung-fu movie enthusiast from Boston with a cracking prepubescent voice, deep in a dream about the fabled Monkey King (Jet Li) and his magical golden staff. He wakes up and soon finds himself in an ancient Chinese kingdom, complete with the painfully expected set of helpless peasants, an evil warlord and a wise drunken kung-fu master (Jackie Chan). As you can probably guess, Tripitikas must fulfill a prophecy, save the kingdom, have awkward romantic moments with his female counterpart and eventually close his journey with an annoying whine of “I just want to go home.“
Nothing is left to the imagination in The Forbidden Kingdom, which sets it apart from other recent martial arts movies like Hero or House of Flying Daggers. Scenic wide-angle shots of wilderness are impressive, but the movie’s extravagant imagery ends up more predictable than picturesque.
The fantasy element of the film is shoved through with deadly energy balls and lightning, which dilutes even Chan and Li’s carefully choreographed fight scenes that come and go in a rigid and formulaic pattern. Choreographer Woo-Ping, who has worked on The Matrix trilogy, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, somehow managed to make the fight scenes so uninteresting that each character felt the need to name the title of their fighting technique before actually using it.
Wu Cheng’en’s famous novel Journey to the West, from which Li’s character slightly references, is almost nearly disregarded, save Li’s monkey-like flamboyant giggling. Chan’s character, a stumbling drunken master and “Daoist immortal” that requires a steady flow of wine, avoids any sort of meaningful dialogue. His lines are almost entirely composed of ancient proverbial one-liners, which apparently teach Jason the fundamentals of kung-fu in a matter of days.
Watch out for flailing staffs as pasty gamers leave the theater. In fact, just avoid the theater entirely, to be safe.