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Forbidden Kingdom

Director: Rob Minkoff
Starring: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano

Last time you watched The Wizard of Oz, did you find yourself thinking, “What this movie needs is less singing and more people kicking each other in the head?” If so, Forbidden Kingdom is the answer to your rather disturbing prayers.

Last time you saw a real Chinese martial arts fantasy like House of Flying Daggers, did you think, “Man, this is too beautiful, and has too much depth and artistry. High art just ruins the punching”? Like, maybe, “I wish someone would make the American version, kinda dumb this down a little.” Then, again, Forbidden Kingdom wants to make you smile.

There’s a kid in world that’s a bit hostile to him and has kinda a limited color palette. He gets what would seem to be a decent head injury in a crisis and wakes up in a hyper-colorful magic realm, in possession of a magical object, and only by going on a quest with three magical friends to face the evil master of the realm can he get his one true wish ““to go back home. His most likable friend seems kinda brainless (Jackie Chan in familiar form as a “drunken kung fu” master), another is a bit heartless (Jet Li shouting his lines as an otherwise stoic warrior monk) and the other one is a beautiful young woman (okay, the Oz analogy starts to break down) who is shy and demure, but marshals the courage to face great evil (Leifi Lui). Oh, and when he gets home, we realize that some of his magical companions are playing people in the kid’s real world, too! There’s even an evil witch, though she’s way hotter than Margaret Hamilton ever was …

The plot is a bit nonsensical, and the title is never explained. There doesn’t seem to be anything forbidden about this kingdom, that may be an alternate universe or may be ancient China. Or, you know, may all be the fun that ensues from devastating head injuries. The movie is decently directed by Rob Minkoff, who last brought us Disney’s Haunted Mansion and the Stuart Little movies. He seems to know he’s making one of these movies, but it’s like when you’re at the museum and they’ve let some art student set up an easel to paint his imitation of some Rembrandt or Matisse work of genius, and the guy, he’s painting it really well and all, but you look over his shoulder and, like, the magic isn’t quite there, you know? But you’d still totally hang his version in your hallway, ’cause, hell, no one you know can paint like that. The film’s beautiful fairy-tale China is just not as entrancing as Yimou Zhang‘s wuxia films. Minkoff is backed by solid talent, though. The action is done by the great Yuen Wo-Ping, but its so heavy on stylized wire work that fans of real martial arts blowouts might be disappointed by all the balletic impossibility of 80 percent of the fight sequences.

Good cast. Michael Angarano, the actor playing the Average Kid who is our hero is delightfully average, rather than some Hollywood product cloned out of the same place they make boy bands and the casts of CW network shows. Li and Chan are fun. Both are past their prime, but their chemistry together, and Chan’s chemistry with Angorano, are very enjoyable. There’s little in the world more charming than Jackie Chan being charming.

So what is this film? It’s comedic, but with higher production values than the brilliant Iron Monkey. It’s epic and grand, but without the ethereal, otherworldly magnificence of Hero or the complexity and power of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is much like Disneyland’s Main Street USA version of the New Orleans French Quarter: The architecture is there, but it’s less convincing, the atmosphere lost, though it is cleaner, more comfortable, and a nice place to spend a little time.

But seriously, the Jade Emperor’s soldiers could be flying monkeys if you squint, and I hear that if you start up Dark Side of the Moon on your iPod just as the titles start, it’ll totally, like, blow your mind, dude.