By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
As others have noted, this remake should actually be called The Kung-Fu Kid, as it revolves around the Chinese, not Japanese, martial art. I'm not sure what's more troubling: the implication that American audiences wouldn't respond to anything less than a brand name or the fact that it's true. Regardless, a film nobody asked for, or expected much from, surprised audiences with its quality, proving itself to be one of the best live-action family films of the past decade.
Jaden Smith (son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and subject of his father's hit song Just the Two of Us) continues to build on the impressive acting chops he displayed in The Pursuit of Happyness. Jackie Chan, who has long been one of my favorite action stars (based on his Hong Kong films, not his American ones) makes good on his stated intention to reinvent himself as a dramatic actor, showing a range of emotions (subtlety, warmth, and grief) that is truly impressive. There's a great deal of thought in the storytelling, as well as a complexity to the characters, that is missing from many family films today. The cinematography captures the lush beauty of China and messages about inter-cultural appreciation, self-discipline, and the abhorrence of misused violence, are well conveyed.
The film's weaknesses are far from fatal. Its two and a half hour running time causes it to drag ever so slightly (it could've lost 10-15 minutes for a better pace). Also, after spending an entire film distinguishing itself from the 1980's classic and standing as its own film, this new Karate Kid (SPOILER) stumbles slightly by essentially copying and pasting the ending from the original. This may be fine for those who've never seen the older movie, and for those who have it is still thrilling and the well-delivered, with terrific choreography. I just wish the film had continued with its own independence. That said, it's still a poignant, moving, and thrilling surprise. GRADE: B+
IS IT OKAY FOR YOUR KIDS?
The Karate Kid is rated PG. One of the key messages of the film is that of nonviolence. This should be surprising only to those who don't know much about actual martial arts, which teach mental and physical self-discipline, being in harmony with nature and other people, appreciation of life, respect for others, and use of force only out of defense. In order to convey this message, the film contrasts it with violent bullying and the misuse of force. There is child-on-child (and one instance of adult-on-child) violence in this film which serves the purpose of deflating the “fighting is cool” notion some audience members may have. It is gritty and painful to watch, making the film not recommended for very young children who may either be frightened by it or attempt to imitate it. For older children, however, the message of nonviolence should be clear. There are a couple of uses of mild profanity by a child, but these are corrected by his teacher and explained to be disrespectful, so the child doesn't use them anymore. A 12-year old boy and girl share a kiss.
ANY WORTHWHILE MESSAGES?
Physical force should be used only in self-defense, never to attack and only with the goal of making peace with one's enemies, not punishing them. Respect and honor your parents.
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Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.