One has to wonder why a big-budget martial-arts fantasy like 2008's "The Forbidden Kingdom," starring two action-hero legends, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, didn't do better at the box office. Could it have been because fans of the genre expected more from the film, thinking it too lighthearted and juvenile? Or could it have been that non-fans thought it would be just more of the same old, tired stunts and spectacle? In any case, one can hope that the movie will gain a bigger audience on disc, especially looking and sounding as well as it does here in high definition; it deserves it.
What we get in "The Forbidden Kingdom" is a mythic folk tale of almost epic proportions, beautiful photography of scenic locales, balletically choreographed fight scenes, and two veteran leads poking good-natured fun at their characters. It's all rather enjoyable, really, with visual and aural pleasures made-to-order for Blu-ray.
I confess I don't know much about Asian history or legends, but according to what I've read, director Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King," "Stuart Little," "The Haunted Mansion"), screenwriter John Fusco ("Young Guns," "Thunderheart," "Hildago"), and action choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Matrix," "Kill Bill") based their movie on the epic tale "Journey to the West," with various characters taken from Chinese mythology. The result is a pretty straightforward quest adventure, true, not an edgy, in-your-face martial-arts film, yet it has a sweetly magical quality about it that can be endearing.
Interestingly, it's neither Chan nor Li who actually stars in the film but a modern teenager named Jason Tripitikas (played by Michael Angarano, a young fellow who reminded me a lot of Shia LaBeouf in "Transformers"). Jason is a great fan of kung fu; he's watched every kung fu film ever made and plastered his room with movie posters of his heroes. But he has no kung fu skills of his own, having never studied or practiced the art. As a result, he gets beat up by a gang of bullies early on, and we can see where that's going to lead in time.
Visiting old Hop's pawn shop one day, Jason spies a fabulous bow staff, a staff he tells Hop (played by Jackie Chan) that he's seen in his dreams. Later that night, Jason winds up with the staff in his hands, and it transports him back in time five hundred years to a fantasy world in ancient China. Here, he meets Lu Yan (also played by Jackie Chan, in a take on the Drunken Master/Drunken Fist roles he portrayed in several previous movies, a character, ironically, also played by Jet Li). Lu Yan introduces himself as "a traveling scholar" or "poet" or "beggar." Take your pick. In reality he is one of the Eight Immortals, the Drunken Immortal who needs an elixir of wine to keep him going through eternity (and in the process keeps him perpetually drunk).
It is Lu Yan who explains to Jason that tradition foretells of a "Seeker" coming to return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King (Jet Li), whom the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) tricked and locked in stone five centuries earlier. Lu Yan also tells Jason that if he expects ever to go home, he must journey to the Five Elements Mountain, give the staff back to the Monkey King, and restore him to life.
So that's it then. As I say, it's partly a quest, in this case not to find but to return something; and it's partly a Hero's Journey of adventure and self discovery. Of course, Jason recruits Lu Yan to go with him, and he also persuades Lu Yan to teach him real kung fu. Along the way to the Mountain, they meet the Silent Monk (also played by Jet Li), whose mission is to find the Seeker, and the lovely Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifi), whose mission is to kill the Jade Warlord, and both of them join the team. On the other side, the Jade Warlord gets wind of Jason and the enchanted staff and sends his minions out to kill him and retrieve the staff for himself. To lead his soldiers, the Warlord assigns the treacherous, man-hating Ni Chang, the White Witch (Li Bing Bing), who is pretty good with a whip of hair.
Everything you would expect to happen in a kung fu movie happens, so don't count on anything new. I found much of the action enjoyable, although there is definitely too much of it. No matter how creatively Woo-Ping Yuen stages the kung fu fighting scenes--and, believe me, they are graceful, precise, and seemingly effortless--when you get as many of them as there are here, they can simply become repetitious. I'd say just enjoy the movie for the camaraderie of its team members; the often playful interaction between Chan and Li; and the spectacularly gorgeous landscapes.
"The Forbidden Kingdom" is a lightweight entry in the fantasy martial-arts genre, clearly made for a wide, general audience rather than exclusively for die-hard kung fu fans. Think of it as a kung fu fairy tale almost anyone can appreciate. The filmmakers keep the action stylized, theatrical, and non-bloody; the characters appealing; the plot romanticized; and the costumes, scenery, CGI, matte shots, set designs, and special effects imposing. The movie is a feast for the eyes and ears, one that should appeal to all ages. It appealed to me, in any case.
Lionsgate went full throttle to make this Blu-ray transfer a visual treat. They reproduce the 2.40:1 ratio widescreen picture on a dual-layer BD50 using an MPEG4/AVC codec. The filmmakers used both conventional and digital cameras to shoot the picture, with generally excellent results. The colors come across brilliantly, realistically vivid, particularly the rich greens, reds, and golds. There is usually a touch of natural film grain to give the image texture, there's good definition and detail, and there are only occasional traces of softness, possibly in the digital portions. Although the black levels are strong, they are not overpowering, the overall picture a tad dark but pleasantly so. The movie is so colorful and so radiant, it seems tailor-made for high definition.
The Lionsgate engineers offer up the audio in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, and like the video, it's often stunning. The clarity is outstanding, the bass roars and rumbles, and the surrounds envelop one in room-filling sound. You'll find the side and/or rear speakers providing an inventive assortment of noises, yet none of it is gratuitous or distracting. Whether it's the sounds of nature or the sounds of combat, you'll find the surrounds adding to your delight in the film.
Disc one contains the extras, and disc two contains a standard-definition digital copy of the movie for Mac's and PC's. So, for the extras on disc one we first get "Bonus View," a picture-in-picture affair (for Profile 1.1 or higher players) that places a screen insert over about a quarter of the picture wherein the filmmakers comment on the action and take you behind the scenes as the movie plays in the background. Next, we get an audio commentary with director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter John Fusco, who provide even more information on the filmmaking. Fusco, for instance, refers to the movie as a "bedtime fable." Hard to disagree. After that is a series of short featurettes: "Storyboard and Previsualization," a little over six minutes with commentary by Rob Minkoff; "The Kung Fu Dream Team," over ten minutes on Li and Chan; "Dangerous Beauty," almost six minutes on the two lead actresses; "Discovering China," eight minutes on the Chinese location shooting; "Filming in Chinawood," about eight minutes on working at the largest movie studio in Asia; and "Monkey King and the Eight Immortals," nine minutes on Chinese mythology and the art of kung fu. Then we get an eight-minute blooper reel with some cute goof-ups and six deleted scenes with commentary by the director and writer.
If your player is Profile 2.0 capable, a BD-Live feature called "MoLog" enables you to do various things like animate text and graphics, things I did not access. The extras conclude with sixteen scene selections; previews of other Lionsgate films at start-up and in the Main Menu; English as the only spoken language; English and Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and pop-up menus.
Although "The Forbidden Kingdom" breaks no new ground in the martial-arts fantasy genre, it is a good Hero's Journey, Coming-of-Age story. And it does pair Jet Li and Jackie Chan in their first big-screen film together. Plus, the movie features a good supporting cast, breathtaking scenery, and imaginative, if somewhat redundant, action sequences. In high-definition Blu-ray picture and sound, it is a pleasure all the way around.