"The Forbidden Kingdom" was photographed in Heng Dian in China. This is significant because that town is home to Hengdian World Studios, currently the largest movie studio in the world.
As reported by Clifford Coonan of Variety magazine in April 2007, Hengdian consists of 13 movie lots spread over 815 acres. Even if, major movie studios like Warner Bros, Disney, and Universal hadn't sold the majority of their backlots, due to real estate prices in Los Angeles, this would still trump them all by leaps and bounds.
Hengdian was once the site of an old village, but an ambitious entrepreneur came in the mid 1990s and transformed it. Prominent filmmakers like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou have both made movies there. An average of 50 films a year are produced in Hengdian. In fact, Hengdian Studios is the biggest employer in that area. The majority of the people who live there receive their income from Hengdian, many for merely being extras in the background of the movies that are made.
Hengdian is home to China's largest soundstage, as well as the largest and grandest replicas of ancient Chinese cities and palaces, including a 98-foot-tall Buddha statue, the largest indoor statue of Buddha in China, probably even the world. It's become so grandiose that Hengdian is now a theme park as well, attracting millions of tourists every year.
The executives of this place say they're not trying to rival Hollywood, but this studio, located in a province on China's east coast, five hours south of Shanghai, has been dubbed "Chinawood."
Jet Li has now filmed three movies here, and if nothing else, Hengdian did provide the perfect backdrop for the gorgeous cinematography and amazingly vast visuals, encompassing great landscapes in "The Forbidden Kingdom." The sets, in this movie, are also very well done, including an intricate teahouse, and neighboring buildings, which are as close to perfect-looking as you can get, and rival the Oscar-winning production design of "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005).
Yet, Geisha-director Rob Marshall didn't make this film. This film was directed by a Rob of a different name, Rob Minkoff, who is best known throughout the halls of Disney as an animator. Minkoff's biggest credit, in fact, was helping to create and direct the monster hit "The Lion King" in 1994. But, with Marshall having directed the Oscar-nominated "Chicago" (2002), both Robs would definitely seem to have a penchant for music and movement.
Minkoff shows off that penchant with the way in which he coordinates and captures the various choreography of Jet Li and co-star Jackie Chan. Nonetheless, don't expect to be wowed by the fight sequences here. They, in no way, go the length that recent Asian epics like "Crouching Tiger, Hiddden Dragon" or "House of Flying Daggers" go. This is at once a curse and a blessing.
Despite the ever presence of magic in this movie, I appreciated that for all but the last fight scene, the weapons were mainly Jackie Chan and Jet Li's hands and feet. There are two funny sequences in which the weapon becomes the entire body of a young teenage boy, but there is a notable stepdown from previous martial arts films that may bore or frustrate some audiences.
Without prescribing the same literary weight to this movie, as I watched it, I couldn't help but evoke thoughts of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Instead, you can think of this film as a kind of White Boston Bruce Lee Fan in the Tang Dynasty's Court.
The plot features a teenager named Jason, played by newcomer actor Michael Angarano, who frequents a pawn shop in Boston run by an old man named Hop. One day, Jason discovers a bo staff that has apparently crossed time and dimensions and must be returned to its rightful owner. After escaping a robbery attempt and a shooting, Jason wakes up instantly in ancient China and hesitantly has to begin his journey to return the bo staff, and also get home.
Along the way, he picks up some fellow travelers, a drunken immortal named Lu Yan, played by Jackie Chan, a silent monk, played by Jet Li, and an orphan seeking revenge named Sparrow, played by Chinese pop singer, Yifei Liu. Though not perfect, the movie takes on a "Wizard of Oz" quality.
The film is totally corny- so much so, you could put it in a kettle and feed a stadium-full of people with its popcorn for months. But it was corny humor with nice, small touches that warmed me to it after a while, even after initially I was ready to give up on it.
Jackie Chan is funny as a drunken Kung Fu master- who may or may not be immortal- who decides to help this young American boy return the bo staff and return home. Jet Li brings his usual serious and commanding gravitas, but there's also some nice levity to his character as well. He could certainly be in the running to be the next Mr. Miyagi, that, or Yoda.
The special effects aren't that great. Again, it doesn't live up to "Crouching Tiger" or "House of Flying Daggers," but it's a close runner-up. What makes up for any flaws is the fact that Jackie Chan and Jet Li fight each other in it. For fans, or simple appreciators, that scene alone is worth all the price of admission.
Three Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for some violence
Running Time: 1 hr. and 53 mins.