Part of the charm of “The Forbidden Kingdom” is that, like so many of the foreign martial-arts films it emulates, the plot is a crazy quilt of random developments, bizarre characters, and absurd proclamations. It begins with a Boston kid being magically transported, for no good reason, to ancient China, where he sensibly exclaims, “I can’t free the Monkey King! I gotta get home!” Any movie with a Monkey King is fine by me.
The kid is named Jason, and he’s played by Michael Angarano, who you might recognize as That Guy Who You Always Think Is Shia LeBeouf. (That’s how I know him, anyway.) Jason is an aficionado of kung fu movies, the more obscure the better, and he finds a lot of imports and bootlegs at a pawn shop run by an old Chinese man played by Jackie Chan in makeup. (By the way: Jackie Chan doing an old man’s voice is even harder to understand than Jackie Chan speaking normally.)
It is here that Jason encounters an ancient wooden staff that the old man says his grandfather was holding for someone who never came to collect it. It befalls Jason to return the staff to its rightful owner — and presto, Jason is in China (the time period is not specified, but it’s pre-electricity), with no idea how he got there or what he’s supposed to do with this stupid stick.
Along comes Lu Yan (Jackie Chan again), a drunken vagabond and expert fighter who gives Jason the skinny on the staff. Seems it belongs to the Monkey King (Jet Li, in flashbacks), who years ago was immobilized by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Jason must journey to Five Elements Mountain and return the staff to the imprisoned Monkey King, set him loose, and defeat the Jade Warlord. Lu Yan will help, and so will a fellow called the Silent Monk (Jet Li again), whom they meet along the way. Oh, and there’s a girl with them, about Jason’s age, named Sparrow (Yifei Liu), who refers to herself in the third person and seeks revenge on the Jade Warlord for killing her parents.
Meanwhile, the Jade Warlord, a heavily eyeshadowed villain who resides in a palace, learns that this all-important staff is in town, and he rallies his resources to obtain it. “Summon the witch!” he says. “The one born of wolves!” Yes, THAT one. Not the other witch. Don’t bring me the witch born of tigers. I was quite dissatisfied with her performance the last time I contracted her. I need the wolf witch! She’s called Ni Chang (Bingbing Li), and she has long, platinum hair. She and the Jade Warlord have mystical powers; drunken Lu Yan has some supernatural tricks up his sleeve, too.
Screenwriter John Fusco (“Hidalgo,” “Young Guns”) borrows from a collage of old Chinese stories, as well as “The Wizard of Oz” (or maybe “The Wizard of Oz” borrows from the same old Chinese stories) to fashion a tale that mixes fantasy, magic, martial arts, and broad comedy. Some fight sequences are gravity-defying, akin to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” while others are more earthbound and practical. The fight choreography is by Woo-ping Yuen, an acknowledged master of this sort of thing who has more than 40 titles to his credit that range from “The Matrix” to the kind of movies Jason watches.
It is especially thrilling for a fan of martial arts flicks to see Jet Li and Jackie Chan fight one another. The battle is inconsequential to the plot (I was never sure, even at the end, whether they were friends or rivals), but watching them go at it is like watching De Niro and Pacino play a scene together. It’s amusing the way they incorporate the inexperienced Jason into their fights, too, often using him as a prop or weapon against enemies.
Also worth noting: the beautiful, multicolored cinematography by Peter Pau (an Oscar-winner for “Crouching Tiger”), which makes the Chinese countrysides, deserts, and mountaintops come alive.
But with all this heavy-duty talent, expert craftsmen, and on-location shooting, you choose as your director the guy who made “Stuart Little” and “The Haunted Mansion”? No offense to Rob Minkoff, but “The Forbidden Kingdom” may have been a larger bite than he was able to chew. All the different fighting styles and story lines aren’t managed so much as they’re thrown together. (Sparrow’s revenge subplot is abruptly concluded; the Boston framing story is needlessly elaborate.) Part of the charm, yes, is the goofiness of it all — but the film would have been better if it were more cohesive, streamlined, and focused. After all, the most important thing about kung fu is discipline.
B- (1 hr., 45 min.; )