The film is distributed in the United States through Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, and through The Huayi Brothers Film & Taihe Investment Company in China. It was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US and Hong Kong on September 9, 2008 and the United Kingdom on November 17, 2008.
South Boston teenager Jason Tripitikas is a fan of martial arts films and awakens from a dream of a battle between the Monkey King and celestial soldiers in the clouds. He visits a pawn shop in Chinatown to buy Wuxia DVDs and discovers a golden staff. On his way home, Tripitikas is harassed by some hooligans, whose leader Lupo attempts to use him to help them rob the shop-owner Hop, who is shot by Lupo. Hop tells Tripitikas to deliver the staff to its rightful owner and Tripitikas flees with the staff. He is cornered on the rooftop before being pulled off the roof by the staff.
When Tripitikas regains consciousness, he finds himself in a village in ancient China that is under attack by armored soldiers. The soldiers see his staff and attempt to seize it. He is saved by the inebriated traveling scholar Lu Yan, a supposed "immortal," who remains alert and agile even when drunk. Lu tells him the story of the rivalry between the King and the Jade Warlord. The Warlord tricked the King into setting aside his magic staff, Ruyi Jingu Bang, and transformed the immortal into a stone statue, but the King cast his staff far away before the transformation. Lu ends the tale with a prophecy about a "Seeker" who will find the staff and free the King. Just then, they are attacked by the Warlord's men again, but manage to escape with the help of Golden Sparrow, a young woman. She reveals that her family was murdered by the Warlord, against whom she has sworn revenge.
Meanwhile, the Warlord, upon learning about the staff, sends the witch Ni-Chang to help him retrieve it in exchange for the elixir of immortality. Tripitikas, Lu and Sparrow meet a strange man dressed in white who takes the staff away from them. Lu fights with the man (later revealed to be the Silent Monk) for the staff until the latter realizes that Tripitikas is the Seeker, and joins them in their quest to free the King. As the four travel to Five Elements Mountain, Lu and the Monk teach Tripitikas kung fu along the way. After crossing a desert, they encounter Ni-Chang and her henchmen and a battle ensues, in which Lu is mortally wounded. Tripitikas’s team takes refuge in a monastery, where they learn that Lu is actually not an immortal as he failed the test, and only the Warlord’s elixir can save his life. In desperation, Tripitikas goes to the Warlord's palace alone to exchange the staff for the elixir.
The Warlord asks Tripitikas to duel Ni-Chang to death, since the former can give the elixir to only one of them. Tripitikas is overpowered until his teammates and monks from the monastery arrive to join the battle. Tripitikas manages to grab the elixir and tosses it to Lu, who drinks it and recovers. The Monk passes the staff to Tripitikas, who uses it to smash the King's statue. The King is freed and the Monk is revealed to be actually one of the King's clones. Lu kills Ni-Chang. After another long battle between the King and the Warlord, the latter is eventually stabbed by Tripitikas and falls into a lava pit to his death. However, Sparrow succumbs to her wounds. The Jade Emperor, having returned from his meditation, praises Tripitikas for fulfilling the prophecy and allows him for one wish, which he asks to return home.
Tripitikas finds himself back in the present. He overpowers Lupo and drives the other hooligans away. Hop survives from the wound and claims that he is immortal (hinting that he is actually Lu). Before the film ends, Jason is delighted to meet a woman who resembles Sparrow. Tripitikas continues honing his kung fu skills while Lu narrates the King’s search for truth.Jackie Chan as Lu Yan, the Drunken Immortal/Hop, the pawn shop owner
Jet Li as Sun Wukong (called) the Monkey King/The Silent Monk
Michael Angarano as Jason Tripitikas, the Traveler and the main protagonist
Collin Chou as The Jade Warlord, the main antagonist
Juana Collignon as Southie Girl
Liu Yifei as Golden Sparrow/the Chinatown girl
Li Bingbing as Ni-Chang, the White-Haired Witch/Assassin
Deshun Wang as The Jade Emperor
While the character Sun Wukong came from Wu Cheng'en's famous classical novel Journey to the West, in an interview with Screen Power magazine, actor Collin Chou denied that the plotline would be related to the novel. The details of the plot were devised by screenwriter John Fusco along with actor Jet Li. Li explains,
In a behind the scenes article he wrote for Kung Fu Magazine, screenwriter John Fusco also stated he derived the surname for the Jason Tripitikas character from "the wandering monk, Tripitaka, from Journey to the West".
The Golden Sparrow character was inspired by Cheng Pei-pei's character Golden Swallow from the Shaw Brothers film Come Drink with Me. Before trying to kill the Jade Warlord, Golden Sparrow refers to the 1966 film, telling him to "Come drink with" her.
Production began in early 1 May 2007 in the area around the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Before filming began, the entire cast did a costume fitting and a script read through, certain dialogues were altered to suit the different actors' English speaking abilities; this was due to the majority of the cast having English as their second language. Chan described the first day of shooting as "very relaxing" because the shots only required drama and walking, with no action. When the two martial arts veterans (Chan and Li) did film action scenes together for the first time, they both expressed how easy it was to work with one another. Chan explained:
Filming finished on August 24, 2007, and the film went into post-production on September 29, 2007.
The response to The Forbidden Kingdom, by both critics and audiences, was mixed to positive. As of 1 May 2008, the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 65% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 121 reviews — with the consensus being "Great fight scenes, but too much filler". Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 57 out of 100, based on 26 reviews — indicating mixed or average reviews.
The Chinese press, however, responded to the movie less positively. Perry Lam wrote in Muse magazine, "As a Hollywood blockbuster, The Forbidden Kingdom offers no apologies for its American-Centrism. In fact, it wears it with pride like a badge of honor".
The Forbidden Kingdom was released on DVD and Blu-ray 9 September 2008. It sold about 1,199,593 units which translated to revenue of $22,921,609, bringing its worldwide total to $151,758,670.
It is sold on single disc and two-disc special editions. The single disc edition has no extras but contains widescreen and full screen presentations of the film. The special edition includes a commentary by director Rob Minkoff, deleted scenes with commentary, featurettes (The Kung Fu Dream Team, Dangerous Beauty, Discovering China, Filming in Chinawood, and Monkey King and the Eight Immortals), a "Previsualization Featurette" with commentary by writer Fusco and director Minkoff, and a blooper reel. In addition to these extras, the Blu-ray release contains a digital copy.
The Forbidden Kingdom grossed a total of $127,906,624 worldwide — $52,075,270 in the United States and $75,831,354 in other territories. In its opening weekend in the United States and Canada, the film grossed $21,401,121 in 3,151 theaters, ranking No. 1 at the box office opening weekend and averaging $6,792 per theater.