When I picked this up at the library all I knew about it for sure was that it stared Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Being so completely unspoiled for it turned out to be a bad thing because frankly, the opening of the movie did not encourage me to want to spend the time to watch the rest.
We start with a really bad fight sequence in which a character in fantasy makeup leaps around mountain peaks while taking on a large group of opponents. The wire work is awful. There is no attempt to make it seem at all like the improbable leaps are the result of anything but a flying harness. Then it turns out to be a dream sequence and I'm willing to forgive it.
Jason Tripitikas, the kid having the dream, is completely obsessed with kung fu movies. His room is wallpapered in posters, stills, and cut outs from magazines. He feeds his addiction by buying bootleg videos from a pawn shop in China Town for a couple of dollars each. We follow him there and meet the owner, an old man called Hop and see Jason accidentally discover that Hop has a beautiful golden staff in a back room. He explains that he is waiting for the rightful owner to return for it.
On Jason's way home he gets caught by the local high school tough guys who plan to force him to help them rob Hop's shop. Jason doesn't put up much resistance to them and this is the point where I hit pause so I could rant at the screen. This kid idolizes the kung fu movie heroes, the old man is a good friend, and he can't find the balls to stand up to these guys a little more? They shove him against a wall in a crowded public place and he doesn't even try to get away? This is where if it were a novel I'd be flipping through pages looking for something to see if it got better. It's hard to do that with a movie so I went to Wiki instead. Almost totally spoiled for what was to come I restarted the movie.
Something happens when they get to the shop that ends with Jason and the staff (which is magical of course) getting dropped into another world. The Middle Kingdom is sort of a manga/anime fantasy version of China where the evil Jade Warlord has been ruling for hundreds of years. The Monkey King had tried to oppose him but was defeated and turned to stone. The Monkey King's staff was flung away at the last moment so the Warlord couldn't get it and that is the staff that Jason has. Jason has to journey to the castle of the Jade Warlord and find a way to return the staff to the Monkey King in order to go home. If all goes well and the Warlord is defeated it will also allow the return of the Jade Emperor and the Middle Kingdom will be free from tyranny.
It's Journey to the West meets Wizard of Oz.
If you spend any time reading manga or watching anime you run into Journey to the West eventually. It's to Eastern storytelling what King Arthur or Robin Hood would be to a Western audience. Elements of it show up even in tales that aren't direct adaptations. If you're interested head over to Wiki and they'll give you an extensive plot synopsis.
In this case they didn't make any real attempt to follow the original story. There are characters like the Monkey King who are lifted directly from it but mostly they are just heavily inspired by the original characters.
The Wizard of Oz influence comes from the structure of the story. There is the framing sequence in the "real" world, a fantasy land that is more vibrant and beautiful than the place the protagonist comes from, and people and things that we see in the framing sequence are echoed in the fantasy world.
Once Jason falls into The Middle Kingdom things get good and stay good until nearly the end. The scenery, both natural and CGI enhanced, is breathtaking.
If the landscape porn isn't enough you need to see costume design. It's worth seeing this movie just for the Jade Warlord's robe at the end alone. I had to pause and rewind and just sit and drool over it. I'd post a picture but I couldn't find one.
The CGI is some of the best I've seen. I only realized it had to be CGI because there was no way they would have built some of the sets that lavishly for just a few minutes of film.
The story is a bit predictable but that's okay. There are some twists to add interest even if they keep to the expected structure.
The wire work and fight choreography when we get to actual fights outside of Jason's dreams are everything you'd expect from a film with Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Jackie Chan is Lu, who is essentially an older version of his Drunken Master character. I loved Drunken Master so I was a happy fangirl when I realized this.
Jet Li is "The Silent Monk" who is really only totally silent during the bit where we first meet him and he has an extended fight scene with Jackie Chan that is amazing and funny and yet another element that's worth the rental just to see if you like kung fu movies even a little.
Lu and the monk double team Jason to teach him kung fu before they reach the final confrontation so he has some small chance to survive. The middle part of the movie is has lots of Rocky and/or Karate Kid type training stuff. In fact, I got a Karate Kid vibe from this movie more than once, especially in the real world sequences.
We also get the budding romance between Jason and Sparrow, a beautiful young assassin with a vendetta against the Warlord.
There's a beautiful but evil kung fu fighting sorceress for Sparrow to fight. As soon as she showed up I knew that this was the sort of movie where even though Sparrow's target is the Jade Warlord she would be the one to fight the sorceress. It was disappointing to be right.
Before Jason gets home there's more scenery and costume porn, a temple of kung fu fighting monks, revelations about the Silent Monk's past, and near escapes. Then he gets home and there is a sequence that had me yelling at the screen again for a few minutes but then it gets good AGAIN for the rest of the movie.
On the whole I really recommend this despite a few week points. It is a lot of fun to watch and it has nothing in it that's unsuitable for kids, in fact they should adore this.