The Forbidden Kingdom
It’s a classic structure: a contemporary kid gets magically transported to a fantasy world. There are a million variations on this theme, from The Wizard of Oz to Narnia to Labyrinth to Pleasantville, and it’s easy to understand the basic appeal. Usually the hero is a scrawny, put-upon kid that most kids can relate to, and it’s a lot of fun believing that you could be magically transported to a fantasy world.
In other words, pure wish fulfillment escapism. I loved this type of story as a kid, and watching The Forbidden Kingdom – an unapologetically old-fashioned fantasy that pairs this structure with the setting and action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – made me nostalgic for the first times I ever saw The NeverEnding Story or The Princess Bride. It’s solid enough entertainment for us grown-ups, but many kids will absolutely adore it.
Michael Angarano, a familiar face from movies like Sky High and Snow Angels, stars as Jason Tripitikas, a teenager from Boston who’s in love with classic kung fu movies. He gets into the predictable scuffle with some bullies (although apparently bullies have made some headway, because these ones have guns), hits his head…and is suddenly in a mythical version of China, lorded over by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou).
He quickly meets up with a ragtag team of martial arts experts, and they all embark on a quest to free the Monkey King "” the only one who can defeat the Jade Warlord "” from his stone imprisonment at the bad guy’s fortress using a legendary staff that Jason happens to have in his possession. Among Jason’s companions are a cute girl (Liu Yifei) and two guys named Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
They’re on the same side, of course, but they can’t realize that at first, because if so, they wouldn’t have an excuse to get into a ten-minute fight sequence. The scene will probably be the highlight of the film for many fans, and it doesn’t disappoint, although I was amused by how the choreography took painstaking steps to make sure neither martial arts legends came out on top. When Chan lands a lucky punch, you know Li is going to then get a good kick in. If Chan looses his footing, you know Li is going to get knocked over.
I’ve always like Chan better, not only because his prop-filled choreography is more fun to watch, but because he seems generally more fun than the super-serious Li. Here those assumptions are generally upheld "” Chan plays a kung fu master who can only fight while drunk, while Li plays the stone-faced Silent Monk "” but Li also gets to show off his playful side in his dual role as the Monkey King. (Chan also shows up in another role,
as the elderly pawn shop owner in Jason’s modern-day Boston.)
The movie was filmed on location in China and looks beautiful, although some sets feel almost purposefully feel artificial, like the foggy mountaintops in the beginning and end of the film. You know in The Princess Bride when Westley and Inigo swordfight atop the Cliffs of Insanity, and it’s obviously a soundstage but it still looks cool? It’s like that, which really contributes to the old-fashioned nature of the whole thing. For once, it’s a movie not trying to dazzle us with digital effects or elaborate computer-painted landscapes, but rather with wires and real, hand-painted sets. And what do you know? The results are magical.
Movie Grade: B
While hunting down bootleg kung-fu DVDs in a Chinatown pawnshop, Jason makes an extraordinary discovery that sends him hurtling back in time to ancient China. There, Jason is charged with a monumental task: he must free the fabled warrior the Monkey King, who has been imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord. Jason is joined in his quest by wise kung fu master Lu Yan and a band of misfit warriors including Silent Monk. But only by learning the true precepts of kung fu can Jason hope to succeed – and find a way to get back home.