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Lame little white boy Jason (Michael Angarano) is forced into a confrontation with gun toting bullies who have just shot his old man friend (Jackie Chan). With magical staff in hand, Jason falls off a tall building and awakens in mythical China, where the Drunken Immortal (also Jackie Chan) informs him that his staff in fact belongs to the Monkey King (Jet Li), who needs it back to be freed from his stone prison. Along with a nameless monk (also Jet Li), and a vengeful young lady named Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), Jason and the Drunken Immortal embark on an adventure to defeat the Jade Overlord (Collin Chou).

Forbidden Kingdom
Hong Kong action fandom celebrated the union of genre greats Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Celebration quickly turned to sorrow when it was announced that The Forbidden Kingdom was going to be a Hollywood co-production, aimed at children, from the director of The Haunted Mansion. Early trailers pushed the Westernized bookends of the film, and the lead actor status of Michael Angarano, and in general no one was happy. Later trailers pushed the Jet Li and Jackie Chan angle, all but ignoring the white, American lead, which likely led to the film’s modest first week box office take. The real movie actually lies somewhere between the two trailers, and is actually much better than I was expecting.

Yes, the bookends are rather weak, and the film may’ve seemed a little more ‘classy’ without this overt Westernization or use of a little white kid as an audience identifier, but these problems are merely cosmetic and incidental in the grand scheme of the film, which was obviously conceived as a fun time at the movies, not an ‘important’ motion picture experience. It’s interesting to note that Forbidden Kingdom uses basically the same bookend structure Tsui Hark used for the international version of his seminal feature Zu Warriors. This doesn’t ‘forgive’ the bookends or anything; I just thought it was interesting post script. From an American filmmaking point of view the stranger in a strange land story is a children’s story standby, and from this standpoint I’d consider Forbidden Kingdom a worthy (though unequal) successor to films like The Wizard of Oz, Treasure Island and The Last Starfighter.

Forbidden Kingdom
I hope that most wushu fans will move beyond their Hollywood sanitation fears the second Jason makes his way into mystical China. Director Rob Minkoff’s filmography doesn’t breed much confidence, but he has a good eye for live action that looks like animation, and he’s working with Yuen Woo-ping, who I’m sure had more than simply a hand in the final direction. The fight scenes are great fun, recalling Chan, Li, and Yuen Woo-ping’s heydays, impressively exhibiting a vast array of both fighting and filmmaking styles without devolving into too much of a ‘greatest hits’ package, even if Forbidden Kingdom is almost as loving an homage to genre filmmaking as the Kill Bill movies.

I don’t consider myself a strict connoisseur of Hong Kong action, but I watch a lot of it, and it’s actually quite refreshing to get a more kid friendly and whimsical take on the subject. Even Stephen Chow’s kung-fu heavy films are a little too naughty for child audiences, and the young ones need something to ease them into the genre. People my age had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This film isn’t as genuinely funny as TMNT, but it’s a better glimpse into the real stuff. The morals and drama are too heavy handed, but that isn’t a strictly American narrative problem, and actually sticks pretty true to the films Forbidden Kingdom idolizes. The film will never be mistaken for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fist of Legend or even Kung Fu Hustle, but it’s entertaining, and isn’t too embarrassing (except for the part where Jet Li pees on Jackie Chan’s face, that was pretty embarrassing).

It is disappointing to see genre titans Li and Chan finally united under a medium budget Hollywood co-production, but the stars are each given two differing roles to sink their teeth into, and plenty of Woo-ping’s finest fight choreography to prove they can still throw a punch. The best parts are seeing the unfortunately stereotyped actors take a swing at more playful characters. For years now American audiences have known Chan as a worrisome warrior, and Li as a calculating, humourless fighting machine, now those who haven’t spent decades watching the duo’s older features can take them in as fun loving Monkey Kings and drunken immortals.

Forbidden Kingdom

Video


Again, Lionsgate puts their best foot forward for one of their major theatrical releases. These guys can spit out mediocre release after mediocre release, but when it comes down to it they do not disappoint (just look at Rambo). This transfer is so clean it often reveals inadequacies in the special effects that might have been covered in the case of a less detailed presentation. Minkoff’s penchant for soft, cartoon like visuals doesn’t lend itself to the sharpest details in the world, but the frame is consistent, and close-ups reveal every cell that makes up a face. There are a few short sequences where the frame rate seems a little fishy, and which seem to be suffering minor interlacing issues. Both times I noticed this was during full gallop horse shots, so this may have had something to do with the camera used for these shots. Otherwise, this is one of Lionsgate’s better transfers.

Audio


Forbidden Kingdom revels in a big, bold DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track. I couldn’t get everything there was to get out of the mix because of my lack of 7.1 channels, but I think I got the gist. All 5.1 of my speakers were teeming with activity. Objects whoosh from front to back and from side to side in a cartoony and entertaining fashion. The LFE pumps sharply with every hit and kick, adding that perfect bit of over-the-top punch to the fights. Though the action is flowery and definitively stylized, there is an aggressive brutality to them on the soundtrack, and the positioning of surround effects is excitingly structured to get the most out of the camera movements and special effects. The final fight is very, very loud. The score takes its cues from other genres rather than other movies. It’s derivative in that respect, but it’s also kind of clever in a generic kind of way. I enjoyed the Chinese influenced traditional hero cues, and was especially amused by the Morricone inspired villain moments.

Forbidden Kingdom

Extras


Disc one of both the Blu-ray and DVD sets is a digital copy version of the film. The actual extra footage is minimal enough to easily fit on a single disc in both cases. Things start with a six and a half minute look at the storyboarding and previz process, which utilizes plenty of storyboard and digital previz footage set to director Minkoff’s behind the scenes information.

‘Kung Fu Dream Team’ is an exceedingly pleasant ten and a half minute featurette about bringing together the films super awesome cast and crew—Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Yuen Woo-ping, and cinematographer Peter Pau ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Bride With White Hair). The most interesting aspect of the entire production ends up being how much input Li had into the final script, which explains the more culturally accurate elements of the film. In the end it’s kind of a fluff piece, but there’s something about listening to people like Chan, Li, Woo-ping, and Pau speaking highly of each other that is really impossible to resist. It’s also nice to see evidence of the on-set co-operation, even if it looks like Minkoff had almost nothing to do with the direction of the kung-fu scenes (which may’ve been the only way this would work).

‘Dangerous Beauty’ is a six minute featurette devoted to the film’s two female characters. It’s interesting that the White Witch character wasn’t part of the original script. Apparently her character started as a male mini-boss, but someone thought it’d be a good idea to continue the homage themes and turn the character into a Bride with White Hair analogue.

Forbidden Kingdom
This is followed by ‘Discovering China’, an eight minute featurette concerned with the many real Chinese locations the crew used for filming. I have to admit that their effort may’ve been in vain because I just assumed most of the location shooting was done on set with special effects. I suppose that says something for the beauty of China, it looks so fantastical and wondrous that I just assumed it was fake.

This trilogy of brief behind the scenes featurettes is completed by a featurette entitled ‘Filming in Chinawood’, concerning the on-set production at Hengdian World Studios near Shanghai. The history of Hengdian is fascinating. The studio started as a farm, then became a battery factor, then was used by director Kaige Chen for The Emperor and the Assassin. More films followed suit, and now the studio ground is covered by semi-permanent sets, which the Forbidden Kingdom crew could redress to save money. The studio is so massive it features its own hotels, dorms, and theme park rides.

‘Monkey King and the Eight Immortals’ is a slightly sappy eight minute look at the production of the film’s script, which came out of writer John Fusco’s want to share traditional Chinese culture with his Westernized son. This featurette is a good lesson on the mythology the film is based on, specifically the Monkey King (where monkey style kung-fu was originated), and the Eight Drunken Immortals (where drunken fist style was originated). I’d preferred the film itself featured more of this stuff.

Forbidden Kingdom
The extras are completed with an amusing blooper reel, mostly involving pratfalls and giggles, and a series of six deleted scenes. The deleted scenes are mostly finished products, plus or minus a few special effects, and are even presented in hi-def video. There is an optional commentary track with the writer and the director, who walk us through each scene with moderate dexterity. This is one of those rare cases where I don’t think I agree with the deletions. The scenes are all somewhat gratuitous I suppose, but would’ve only added about eight minutes to the run time, and would’ve filled out a rather threadbare little film.

For those excited by such things, the disc also features one of those Lionsgate MoLogs, which my player does not support. I hear it’s pretty cool though.

Overall


What do you get when you mix the production stylings of Golden Harvest, the Weinstein Brothers, the De Laurentiis family, and modern exploitation pioneers Lionsgate, the kung-fu stylings of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Yuen Woo-ping, and put it under the direction of the guy who made Stuart Little? Something this close to special. Forbidden Kingdom isn’t the disaster so many of us feared it would be, but it has its problems as well. Ignore the PG-13 rating, minus maybe a few drops of blood this is a PG movie that should please the hell out of a lot children.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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