"The Forbidden Kingdom" is kung fu light, the kind of martial arts family film that results when the director who made "Stuart Little" and "The Lion King" gets to work with Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
Of course, the great martial arts films of the past didn't exactly feature scripts by Ingmar Bergman or Graham Greene. What they did have was a hard-core integrity that reveled in exhilarating action and didn't worry overly much about market share.
However the presence of high-profile executive producers like Ryan Kavanaugh, Raffaella De Laurentiis and Jon Feltheimer in addition to producer Casey Silver and director Rob Minkoff signals that "Kingdom" has been envisioned as a major international moneymaker that, in De Laurentiis' words, "will appeal to both the East and the West."
The story line, courtesy of writer John Fusco ("Young Guns," "Hidalgo"), involves a nerdy teen who goes through "the gate of no gate" (seriously) and ends up getting mentored by legends and making kung fu history in China's mythical past. Think of "The Karate Kid" set in a "Fists of Fury" fantasyland and you'll have a rough idea of what's going on here.
Though it's bland enough to have been allowed to shoot on China's mainland, what's pesky about "The Forbidden Kingdom" is that it can't be completely dismissed. It does, after all, have the first-time pairing of the world's most popular martial arts stars, their names linked on screen by the letter 'J' like two words on a Scrabble board.
More than that, the fight choreographer (and yet another executive producer) is the accomplished Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the honors for such films as "The Matrix," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Kill Bill."
Though this makes "Forbidden Kingdom's" fights of interest, especially the long-awaited Chan-Li hand-to-hand face-off, it's not like the old days. Jet Li, whose last film was the considerably darker "Fearless," is not truly at home in a friendlier persona. And Chan, though he still has a phenomenally engaging presence, is in his mid-50s and no longer the daredevil he was when his tag line was "No Fear, No Stuntman, No Equal."
In fact, the people whose hearts are most in the film are the Westerners. Screenwriter Fusco and helmer Minkoff (who codirected "The Lion King" and was in charge of Eddie Murphy's "The Haunted Mansion") appear to be aficionados of China and the martial arts.
"Forbidden Kingdom" as a result is larded with lore, with references to "things long foretold" and "the elixir of immortality" as well as martial arts moves with names like the Iron Elbow and Buddah Palm.
In this the filmmakers resemble their protagonist, the awkwardly named Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano). He's a kung fu-obsessed youth from Boston with no visible parents, Bruce Lee posters on his wall and a life that revolves around watching old movies found in a Chinatown shop run by an ancient pawnbroker.
Jason spies an even older fighting staff in the pawnshop's backroom, and before he quite knows what hit him, the film's infantile framing device gets the better of him and he is hurled back in time to China, where, even more magically, everyone seems to speak perfectly serviceable English. Go figure.
His task, whether he wants it or not, is to deliver that staff to its rightful owner, the playful Monkey King, who has been encased in stone for the last 500 years while the Jade War Lord (Collin Chou) has been using his own personal Jade Army to make life miserable for everyone in the vicinity.
No quest is complete without sidekicks, and Jason has some of the best, including Lu Yan (Chan), the master of drunken kung fu; a somber monk (Li); and Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), a young woman hell-bent on revenge. Playing for Team Evil are that warlord, so bad he wears mascara 24/7, and Ni Chang, the White-Haired Demoness (Li Bing Bing), who wields a whip with the elan of Elsa, She-Wolf of the S.S.
Young Jason, by contrast, has zip martial arts skills and an Alice in Wonderland franticness that never leaves him. Inexplicably, Lu Yan and the monk agree to mentor him, passing along life lessons like "you must taste the bitter before the sweet" in the process. It's not any more exciting than it sounds.
There's nothing really wrong with all this in theory, but the overall doofiness of the execution is finally too much to overcome. The filmmakers come off like their protagonist, wide-eyed tourists in an exotic realm. If you've been looking for a martial arts film to take granny and the kids to, this might be the one, but a Jackie Chan-Jet Li collaboration deserves better than that.