The Forbidden Kingdom

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The Forbidden Kingdom

Release Date: April 18
Director: Rob Minkoff
Writer: John Fusco
Cinematographer: Peter Pau
Starring: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bing Bing, Michael Angarano
Studio/Run Time: Lionsgate, 113 mins.

The paradox of modern special effects is that they look perfectly realistic but they're no longer impressive

. For the latest example, see The Forbidden Kingdom, a martial arts fantasy in which a bullied kid from present day America (Michael Angarano of Snow Angels) is transported to ancient China where he joins forces with none other than Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Liu Yifei to defeat the evil Jade Warlord.

Top-notch visual effects provide the film’s kinetics, but in a movie like this they're both a boon and a curse. On the one hand, filmmakers can use them to realize even the wildest fantasy stories. On the other, half the fun of a traditional martial arts film comes from the jaw-dropping performances, but when a 54-year-old Jackie Chan looks like a much better fighter than he was when he was 20, you know something is up.

Chan was always most impressive not for his fighting skills but for his ability to scurry up walls like a kitty cat, his talent for navigating a gymnasium full of obstacles, and his willingness to leap from a multi-story building using a series of awnings to break his fall. As the outtakes from Chan's Project A (1983) reveal, the awnings didn't always hold up their end of the bargain.

That sense of performance, of danger, is gone when the stunts are given a digital boost by director Rob Minkoff, whose past experience includes Stuart Little.

In retrospect, it seems that you could group together performance-based films like Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924), Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, 1952), and Jackie Chan's films of the '80s. They’re primarily about graceful actions and precision stunts; the stories come second. And the newest addition to that group would not be a CGI-heavy martial arts movie, but a film like District B13 or the last Bond entry, Casino Royale, both of which make use of "parkour," a form of street acrobatics practiced by people who inherited Chan’s feline genes.

The Forbidden Kingdom, while it seems to continue the tradition, is really something else entirely. It belongs in a category with The Karate Kid and The Wizard of Oz, from which it clearly draws inspiration. All three are fine entertainments that are sure to please youngsters, and their few dazzling performers—like Ray Bolger, the scarecrow—use their feats to embellish a fanciful story with an appeal that mostly lies elsewhere. If The Forbidden Kingdom missteps, it's by assuming that its digitally enhanced stunts are more impressive than they are (that is, by assuming itself a part of the Keaton camp instead of the Oz camp), and therefore lavishing more attention on the kinetics than the story.

For the first time in their careers, Chan and Li share the screen, but Chan is the more enjoyable performer, thanks largely to his awkward charm. He's a quick-moving goofball, a twofer that seems odd until you consider that his longest running character is a "drunken master" (a variant of which he resurrects for The Forbidden Kingdom) who seems so intoxicated that he can barely stand up, thus making him remarkably difficult to beat in a brawl.

He may not be doing as many stunts these days, but Chan's skull and hip would like to thank you (and the digital effects team) for sparing them yet another beating. They encourage you and your elementary school children to enjoy the flick anyway, which, at the end of the day, isn't so hard to do.