THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
The Forbidden Kingdom comes from Rob Minkoff, a former Disney animator who started out directing Roger Rabbit shorts and then co-directed The Lion King (1994), before making his live-action debut with Stuart Little (1999) and going onto Stuart Little 2 (2002) and the Disney theme park adaptation The Haunted Mansion (2003) and subsequently returning to animation with Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014). Even more interestingly, The Forbidden Kingdom has a script from John Fusco, a writer who has constantly focused on matters Native American, Western and horse-related with scripts for films such as Young Guns (1988), Thunderheart (1992), Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), Dreamkeeper (tv mini-series, 2003) and Hidalgo (2004), as well as the odd genre outing like Crossroads (1986), Loch Ness (1996), another equally embarassing venture into Wu Xia cinema with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) and The Shack (2017).
The Forbidden Kingdom was pitched as an adaptation of the classic 16th Century Chinese epic legend Journey to the West. Journey to the West concerns a quest to India from China by the scholar Tripitaka, accompanied by the mischievous Monkey King and his two companions, to retrieve some Buddhist documents. Along the way, they encounter various demonic forces and comic figures. Journey to the West has been filmed a number of times, most notably as the Japanese film Monkey Sun (1940); the Chinese animated Princess Iron Fan (1941); the Chinese film Princess Iron Fan (1941) based on a partial segment of the story; the Japanese film Songoku: The Road to the West/The Adventures of Sun Wu Hung (1959); the Japanese animated Alakazam the Great (1961); the Chinese animated film The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven (1965), which is the best adaptation of the story to date; a trilogy of live-action films from Hong Kongs Shaw Brothers Monkey Goes West (1966), Princess Iron Fan (1966) and The Cave of the Silken Web (1967); the popular the Japanese tv series Monkey (1978-9); a South Korean tv series Journey to the West (1982); a Japanese tv series Journey to the West (1993); director Jeffrey Laus two-part Hong Kong film A Chinese Odyssey Part 1: Pandoras Box (1994) and A Chinese Odyssey Part 2: Cinderella (1995) with Stephen Chow as Monkey; a Japanese anime tv series Monkey Magic (1998); the US tv mini-series The Monkey King/The Lost Empire (2001) starring Thomas Gibson; the Hong Kong tv mini-series The Monkey King (2002); Jeffrey Laus remake of his earlier work A Chinese Tall Story (2005); a Japanese tv series Saiyuki (2006), which had one film spinoff with Saiyuki (2007); the modernised Emperor Visits the Hell (2012); Stephen Chows Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) and its sequel Journey to the West: Demon Chapter (2017);The Monkey King (2014) starring Donnie Yen and its sequel The Monkey King 2 (2016) with Aaron Kwok; and the Chinese animated Monkey King: The Hero is Back (2016). That said, despite its claims, The Forbidden Kingdom is not actually based on Journey to the West. Monkey King does feature as a character and there is a journey to a sacred mountain (to return rather than obtain a sacred artefact) even a hero named Tripitaka (although a fan of kung fu movies hardly counts as the equivalent of a Buddhist scholar). However, Monkey King spends most of the film in frozen stasis; he is bereft of any of his companions; there is no mention made of Buddhism anywhere in the film; and, as the end tells us, Monkey Kings journey is yet to come ie. what we have is at best a prelude to Journey to the West.
In fact, what we have with The Forbidden Kingdom, is a film that feels more like a version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) but using characters from classic martial arts/Wu Xia films rather than Victorian fiction. There is the character of Monkey King whose appearance has even been based on the makeup in the classic Monkey tv series; someone who is at least named Tripitaka; there is Jackie Chan reprising his role from the Drunken Master series; there is Bingbing Li as the eponymous character from The Bride with White Hair (1993) and sequel; while Yifei Liu plays Golden Swallow, a character who appeared in Come Drink With Me (1966) and several other classic martial arts films; and the character of the elderly monk with severe white eyebrows that appeared in numerous Shaw Brothers films played by various actors. There are many references to martial arts films throughout like Seann William Scott in Bulletproof Monk (2003), Michael Angaranos character seems to base his martial arts on an absorption of kung fu movies (and videogames) rather than any actual training. There is even an opening credits sequence made up of a montage of posters from classic Shaw Brothers kung fu films.
I failed to find any great enthusiasm for The Forbidden Kingdom before watching it. However, when I saw what it was trying to do with the classic characters, the idea seemed to hold a good deal of promise. Much has been poured into the film. The entire production went to shoot in mainland China. It has been billed as the first onscreen pairing between Jet Li and Jackie Chan, the two most famous Hong Kong/Chinese actors in the world. Yuen Woo-ping, the legendary martial arts coordinator/director who gained fame as the fight coordinator for The Matrix (1999), has been brought on board and directs the martial arts sequences, as well as takes as an executive producer role.
Only, The Forbidden Kingdom arrives on screen with all the warmed-over whimper of a junior-grade martial arts tournament. The martial arts sequences should have burnt the screen away as they did when imported to the West in The Matrix but here they seem formulaic and produced without enervation. Jet Li and Jackie Chan meet up onscreen in a fight sequence but it is a sequence that is entirely lacking in the promise of such build-up, not to mention fails to hold a candle to the body of work in the martial arts genre that either actor is known for. Watching their on-screen confrontation has about all the excitement of the graphics for a tv news show it is just stunt coordinators and visual effects people, not two characters fighting. The same could be said for every single fight sequence in the film. If only they had let Yuen Woo-ping direct rather than sit as a producer, as opposed to giving the film to a director like Rob Minkoff who is only known for his soft-headed family fare, The Forbidden Kingdom might have been a classic.
The criminal failing of The Forbidden Kingdom is that it has Westernised Wu Xia cinema. While most classic Hong Kong kung fu films are about adventure and skill, the problem that all Western attempts to copy these have had from Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and The Golden Child (1986), through Bulletproof Monk, Monkey King, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006), Kung Fu Panda and this is that they recast the films with Western faces. Moreover, they all make a play on the comic disparity between popular Western and traditional Eastern cultures. However, in allowing the white faces to invariably win out, they cannot help but seem to be about the eminent superiority of one culture over the other. The only Western effort to dig any deeper than this was the exceptional tv series Kung Fu (1972-5) with David Carradine. Here the glorious exploits of Monkey and the various other classic kung fu characters have been banalised while The Forbidden Kingdom is billed as an adaptation of Journey to the West, Monkey King barely gets to appear. Even Jet Li and Jackie Chan are supplanted by a pimply American kid who would not even last five minutes in a classic Shaw Brothers film. Indeed, the films greatest crime is that it has supplanted the feats of the Drunken Master, Golden Swallow, the pairing of modern martial arts stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, not to mention Monkey King who has been enjoyed by people for 400 years, with a snot-nosed kid whose name will not even be remembered by audiences by the time they leave the theatre.