A couple of quick reviews.
The Spiderwick Chronicles
I’d almost forgotten about this one, but as my dad and I were trying to kill time our last couple of days in Florida we found a theater with an Imax screen that was showing it. I hadn’t seen it on my usual movie night with my brother-in-law because Dave had pretty much dismissed it as a kids’ movie. I was less sure.
After all, Harry Potter started out as a kids’ series, but even from the first book/movie there was something about Harry that appealed to adults too. I hoped that Spiderwick would be the same, but it turns out Dave was right.
I didn’t hate Spiderwick and I wasn’t bored by it, but for whatever reason it sketches its characters in only the barest of ways, relying on archetypal clichés to help us fill in the blanks. Jared Grace is the typical angry-kid, giving his mom a hard time about his parents’ divorce and proclaiming loudly how much he wants to live with his dad. Of course he’s going to learn who the truly heroic parent is by the end. He’ll also learn to channel his anger in a positive direction by becoming the aggressive, decisive leader of a little, goblin-fighting army made up of his siblings. His brother Simon is the smart, but clumsy nerd. Sister Mallory is the sword-wielding fighter of the family. It’s nice to see a girl in that role, but she’s no more fleshed out than any combat-oriented Dungeons & Dragons character.
I complained when I heard that the movie was squeezing all five Spiderwick books into one film, but people who’d read the books assured me that there wasn’t enough story in one book to fill a whole movie, so it pretty much had to be done this way. Having seen the movie now, I still think they should have made more than one film and used the extra time to develop the characters more.
Mom is a stereotypical female divorcee, trying her best to start life over in a new town in order to make a good life for her kids. Dad is a stereotypical male divorcee who’s left his family to shack up with a younger woman. Mr. Spiderwick, whose collection of notes about the habits and secrets of faeries is what starts the story going, is a cliché absent-minded professor who gets so wrapped up in his work that he doesn’t realize its potential for evil. And even when it’s pointed out to him, he can’t bear to destroy it because it’s his life. His daughter, a young girl at the time of his disappearance; an old woman by the time the Grace kids meet her, is the cliché eccentric old lady who’s not really as crazy as everyone says.
Even the main faerie characters, a brownie named Thimbletack and a hobgoblin named Hogsqueal are unlikable and boring. Thimbletack starts off sort of pink, cute and mousy, but gets large, ugly, and shouty when angry. Everyone in the movie treats him like a favorite pet, but he’s more Cujo than Benji. Hogsqueal is just there to be gross and play the unconvincing deus ex machina at the end of the movie.
Everything seemed rushed and by-the-numbers, like they were trying to just get us through the story as quickly as possible. There’s no supsense; no set up. They really should’ve made it at least a couple of movies, if not five.
Two out of five evil ravens.
The Forbidden Kingdom
About halfway through The Forbidden Kingdom I figured out what kind of movie it was and was able to enjoy it more.
It’s not an awesome kung fu movie. The fighting – even the very long scene where Jackie Chan fights Jet Li – is boring and full of wire fu. My main expectation from any martial arts film is for it to show me something I’ve never seen before and make me go, “Wow!” The Forbidden Kingdom never did that. Neither in the fighting nor in terms of special effects or the fantasy element.
There’s some nice, pretty scenery, but certainly nothing to compare to Lord of the Rings. The mythology is inconsistent and the depiction of the Chinese immortals makes them look quaint and funny, not cool. The first time I saw the Monkey King I thought he was Neelix from Star Trek: Voyager.
And then there’s the framing sequence about a modern-day kid named Jason who finds an ancient staff in a Chinese curio shop and gets sent back in time to return it to its rightful owner. It’s right out of The Karate Kid and Neverending Story. Jason loves Chinese movies and culture and hanging out in Old Hop’s store, but his uniqueness gets him picked on. When a gang of toughs right out of West Side Story find him with a bag of kung fu movies from Old Hop’s place, they natually assume Jason’s been “hanging out” with the old man. It’s a correct assumption, but you have to wonder how they arrived at it by looking at the logo on a plastic shopping bag. If some muggers caught me walking home with a Best Buy bag, would they automatically figure I was in tight with the store manager and could get them in after hours so they could rob the place? Apparently so.
Jason stupidly decides not to take his beating, but leads the gang back to Hop’s place where he gets Hop to open the door so they can break in. Then, counter to the ridiculousness with which the gang’s been portrayed up to that point, the West Side Story Jets suddenly become the Bloods and pop a cap into Old Hop. Not believing that Jason won’t tell on them, they start to chase him too, but he’s got the ancient staff from the shop (I forget why) and it sends him into the past for most of the rest of the movie.
There he discovers a world ruled by the evil Jade Warlord who can only be overthrown if Jason returns the staff to the Monkey King, who was tricked and imprisoned by the Jade Warlord centuries ago. Helping him in his quest are a drunken immortal (Jackie Chan), a remarkably talkative Silent Monk (Jet Li), and a vengeful girl (Yifei Liu) whose parents were killed by the Jade Warlord.
It was partway through the quest that I realized that I wasn’t supposed to be watching a cool, kung fu-fantasy movie. What I was watching was a throwback to ’80s teen-wish-fulfillment adventure. If I was thirteen years old I think I might have really identified with poor Jason and been able to imprint myself on him in order to better enjoy his adventures. Jason gets to do a lot of cool stuff. He hangs out with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and a murderously beautiful girl. He gets to learn kung fu and save the world from an evil tyrant. And of course he gets to return home at the end and use what he’s learned on the JetsBloods.
In that respect, The Forbidden Kingdom is a harmless, fun movie. But it’s not a good movie and it’s not a movie with a lot of appeal for anyone outside of that teenaged boy demographic. Jackie Chan is fun to watch in it – certainly more fun than he is in the Rush Hour movies – but that’s not enough to make me love it.
Three out of five vengeful and beautiful orphan girls.