Jason (Michael Angarano) dreams of martial arts. His favorite hero is the golden-haired Monkey King (Jet Li), battling legions of dark-armored opponents from on top of a mountain, his skills excellent and his cause — whatever it is — surely righteous. As the Monkey King teeters and slams into rocks, Jason wakes in a sweat, his Bruce Lee poster prominent on the wall behind his bed. Phew.
Or not. Even when his wuxia fantasy ends at the start of The Forbidden Kingdom, Jason is not exactly in the clear. Though he knows his kung fu styles and stars, he’s still a high school student, a bullied one to boot. Though he shares his woes with an ancient pawn shop owner, Old Hop (Jackie Chan, buried under plastic wrinkles), Jason remains besieged by older kids, in particular the Grease throwback Lupo (Morgan Benoit). When Lupo forces him to help out in a botched robbery of the pawn shop, Jason tries to make amends by promising Old Hop he will deliver a special bowstaff to its rightful owner. Though he tells Old Hop that he has seen the staff before, in his dreams, he has not idea that his pledge will land him in the Chinese countryside, several centuries back. Now he can learn the true meaning of kung fu, and oh yes, learn some cool moves as well.
The imperative to learn kung fu become more urgent when Jason learns that the staff he carries is also pursued by the very mean Jade War Lord (Collin Chou) and the witchy Ni Chang (Bingbing Li), possessed of long white hair she wields as a weapon. Lucky for Jason, almost as soon as he stumbles away from the villains, he runs into Lu Yan (also Chan), an old-school drunken master with an ever-full bottle and impressive kung fu skills, on frequent loosey-goosey and usually entertaining display. Per formula, Lu Yan proceeds to instruct the boy in ancient wisdom and martial arts, offering up the occasional Mr. Miyagi-ism: Jason: “I can’t understand you.” Lu Yan: “That’s because you’re not listening.”
As he learns to listen, Jason is apprised that it has been “long foretold that a seeker would come to return the staff to the Monkey King” (who, by the way, is able to transform into 72 different animals or objects), to make extra clear that he has in fact arrived in his dream world. As Lu Yan and Jason make their way through forests and fields, they pick up another couple of travelers/teachers, including the Silent Monk (Li again) and the lovely Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei). Lu Yan and the Monk feel instant antipathy, apparently over who’s actually assigned to be Jason’s teacher. Their conflict provides for the film’s most entertaining moments, in wild wireworky fights by Woo-Ping Yuen, one inside a temple that is especially lively.
Despite these much-anticipated encounters (the two stars have talked about working together for years) and despite some lovely Chinese locations, Rob Minkoff’s movie feels like one missed opportunity after another. Though Golden Sparrow is granted her own rudimentary plotline — she seeks vengeance against the Jade War Lord for her parents’ murders — it’s clear right away that she’s in place to provide Jason with an age-appropriate desirable object, one who is conveniently reembodied as a shy girl back in Boston. This means that for his seeming dedication to the art and wisdom of kung fu, Jason might remain a recognizable American boy who does, after all, want to go “home,” and whose budding interracial carnal interests ensure he will never be a monk, at least.
Still, Jason’s relationship with Golden Sparrow stays pretty locked in first gear, such that the movie might attend to kung fu — sort of. The from-jump trouble for The Forbidden Kingdom is its framing of the kung fu by mostly irrelevant other plots and characters. While there may be a certain pleasure for 10-year-olds to imagine themselves as Jason training to leap and parry with Jet Li and Jackie Chan, the truth is, the teachers are infinitely more mesmeric than Jason’s travels through kung fu Oz.