I’m not a fan of remaking movies that are still in the lexicon of pop-culture, especially those that are considered classics or have a strong cult following (I’m talking to you Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). However, The Karate Kid surprised me by improving upon a film that’s beloved by the kids of the '80s.
The Will Smith-produced film uses the original’s concept of new kid makes an enemy in the school bully until a wise, underestimated Asian man gives him an unorthodox training in the art of karate. This go-round, however, the new kid is from America and his new town is Beijing, China. Not only is 12-year old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) at a disadvantage physically, he’s trying to adapt within a culture vastly different than America’s that speaks one of the most foreign of foreign languages (when Dre tries to communicate the hot water isn’t working and uses the word “agua”…yeah, we’ve all been there). It’s useful to kids to see that other cultures operate in different ways and Dre makes mistakes because he doesn’t understand how to behave in their traditional environment.
What’s most shocking about The Karate Kid is the visceral display of bullying. Dre gets his butt KICKED ... and stomped ... and walloped ... and there aren’t too many cutaways. In other words, the audience sees hands and feet connecting with Dre’s face and chest, his fragile body flying through the air and landing hard on the ground. It’s rough to watch but useful for parents who might not know just how brutal bullying can be. (I, for one, have never actually seen a “real” fight except on “Jersey Shore.”)
That doesn’t mean Dre handles bullying correctly. His ego is as badly bruised as his eye and he doesn’t tell an adult, even when his friend urges him to do so. He does, eventually, get the support of his apartment’s maintenance man, Mr. Han, who teaches him Kung Fu, respect and obedience at the same time (many parents might wish for a Mr. Han in their life!). If The Karate Kid doesn’t spur you to discuss bullying with your kid, nothing will.
It’s also refreshing to see how Taraji P. Henson plays the role of Dre’s widowed mother. The friendly, cozy but still parental relationship is quite modern and realistic and many mothers will be on the emotional ride with her. Henson is an Academy Award nominee who pulled off memorable performances in both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Doubt…which leads me to the next thing you should think about if you are still doubting The Karate Kid.
While knowing that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith produced The Karate Kid as a starring vehicle for their son may produce a nepotistic eyeroll, think about how it affects you, the moviegoer. If the Smiths were ever going to pull out all the stops, it is definitely for their son’s first leading role. As it turns out, Jaden Smith’s skill as an actor doesn’t fall far from the tree: he ranks up there with Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin and his emotive expressions make the film and break your heart.
The Karate Kid may be a little too intense for young children but second grade and above will probably enjoy seeing their own Rocky…and given the 50-year old women I sat next to who cheered throughout the film, it’s safe to say you’ll enjoy it, too.