The teaming of Jackie Chan and Jet Li sounds like an obvious winner, given that they're the two biggest Hong Kong martial-arts stars of their generation, and they've never appeared onscreen together. But the concept falls apart under any scrutiny: Why didn't this happen 15 years ago, when they were both in their prime? (Close enough, anyway.) Even if it had happened 15 years ago, how do you reconcile the austere beauty of Li's wire-fu classics like Once Upon A Time In China with the Buster Keaton-inspired slapstick acrobatics of Jackie Chan standards like Drunken Master 2? And why not entrust the project to an old Hong Kong hand like Tsui Hark or Ronny Yu, instead of the guy responsible for The Haunted Mansion? At best, The Forbidden Kingdom counts as an amiable time-waster for kids, but much more should be expected from the momentous union of two kung-fu titans.
The plot marries the stock Hollywood premise of a bullied weakling with Karate Kid dreams, and a stock Hong Kong story congealed from a baffling mass of mythological mumbo-jumbo. Playing a likeable outcast much like the one he played in the underrated Sky High, Michael Angarano gets far more screen time than Chan or Li, and he acquits himself nicely as a Hong Kong cinema obsessive whose fantasies come to vivid life. Upon discovering a magical weapon in a pawn shop, Angarano is whisked back to ancient China on a mission to return the weapon to "the Monkey King," a legendary warrior turned to stone. He joins forces with a drunken master (Chan) and a stoic monk (Li) on a journey to free the Monkey King and defeat the immortal Jade Warlord.
With choreography by the great Yuen Woo-ping—whose list of credits runs from Hong Kong action films like Iron Monkey and Wing Chun to American efforts like The Matrix and Kill Bill—The Forbidden Kingdom tries to strike a balance between Chan's hand-to-hand combat and Li's more balletic wire-fu. The two styles fuse more smoothly than expected, but there isn't a great deal of invention in the fight sequences; they're just a good primer for viewers who don't know any better. So too the rest of the movie, which seems intended for 14-year-old boys who will hopefully grow up to be like Angarano's character, and seek out the real thing on bootleg DVDs.