Thursday, June 10, 2010

The "Karate Kid" and the Downside of Nostalgia

With all the remakes and reboots happening lately, it was inevitable that the backlash would happen sooner or later. This weekend sees the release of two films based on beloved '80s properties, "The A-Team" based on the Stephen J. Cannell action show, and a new version of "The Karate Kid," which I've previously griped is a complete misnomer because it takes place in China and the "Kid" learns kung-fu. From the reviews streaming in so far, it looks like the consensus is that "The A-Team" is a pretty typical loud, noisy action picture which is more or less entertaining, but also dumb as a rock. The reactions to "The Karate Kid" have been more interesting.

So far there have been some strong positive reviews, like this one from Mike Ryan over at Vanity Fair, and this one from Owen Glieberman at Entertainment Weekly. Others have been negative, including Nick Pinkerton over at The Village Voice, and Frank Scheck from the Hollywood Reporter. Mike Osegueda over at the Fresno Bee and countless bloggers have railed against it sight unseen. Par for the course so far. But it doesn't take long to notice that the positive reviews make cursory mention of the original 1984 film, but otherwise evaluate the new "Karate Kid" largely on its own merits. The negative ones are far more likely to make use of extensive comparisons to the first "Karate Kid," pitting Jackie Chan against Pat Morita, and Jaden Smith against Ralph Macchio.

All remakes are sized up in comparison to their predecessors, but the new " Karate Kid," really seems to have rubbed a lot of critics the wrong way, for reasons that have less to do with the film's quality and everything to do with simply being called "The Karate Kid." A few screeds I've stumbled across take the film's mere existence as a personal offense. Several reviews try to convince readers that the story no longer works because the protagonist is now actually a prepubescent child, instead of a twenty-something playing a teenager. Or that the use of the Chinese setting is somehow detrimental to telling a martial arts story. But really, the problem seems to be that many reviewers can't bring themselves to evaluate the new film separately from their nostalgic memories of the original, and I've seen a great deal of objectivity crane-kicked out the window.

I can't say this is unfair, because much of the adult audience will probably be having similar reactions. I indulge in plenty of pining for the good old days myself, so I understand the impulse to reject something that appears to seek to supplant a cherished original. But from everything I've seen, I don't think there's anything to worry about. The creators have changed so much of the story for the remake – a completely new cast of characters with different ethnicities, and swapping out the American setting for Beijing – the only thing the films really share is a title and a basic premise. Jaden Smith is playing a kid named Dre, not Daniel-san. Jackie Chan's wise old Asian master is Mr. Han, not the iconic Mr. Miyagi. For once, the filmmakers actually tried to do something different and original here.

Maybe it's those differences that have people so upset. Nostalgia's a funny thing, and Hollywood's gotten awfully dependent on it without really coming to grips with the potential dark side. When people are nostalgic for the stories of their youth, the warm, fuzzy feelings can only be successfully transferred to a new property if there are enough familiar elements to ping recognition in the viewers' brains. Failure to do so may result in rejection and hostility, like that "Robin Hood" movie that looks more like a sequel to "Gladiator." Sometimes it's not so easy to tell what the necessary elements are. Maybe viewers just can't accept a "Karate Kid" movie without Mr. Miyagi or that rousing '80s soundtrack.

I didn't realize there was so much goodwill toward the original film, which was a staple of my younger years, but not one I have strong feelings toward one way or another. Yet multiple reviews and articles refer to it as a favorite and a classic, and nobody seems to remember the critical lambasting the first "Karate Kid" took back in 1984, when a common charge was that its story had been lifted wholesale from "Rocky." (Both films shared director John Avildsen, who would even refer to it as "The Ka-Rocky Kid") It became a fairly successful franchise, with two sequels and a couple of spinoff projects. I'm not surprised that a studio would want to resurrect it for a new generation – and they already tried once in 1994 with "The Next Karate Kid," which starred Pat Morita and a teenage Hilary Swank.

But I didn't expect so much vitriol to be thrown at the new "Karate Kid." My guess is that some of the old fans feel that it's a threat to their memories of the original, or that the first film will lose something by being associated with a new, flashier product of the same name. And on that note, I have to wonder if the reaction would be this extreme if Sony had just done the smart thing and called the movie "The Kung-Fu Kid." Sure having the "Karate Kid" title is making people nostalgic and helping them connect the new film to the older one, but sometimes nostalgia works against a picture. Sometimes those great memories of the original just get in the way of people's enjoyment of a new story.

Of course, the remake was made for today's kids who don't know Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi, not the kids of yesteryear. So in the end it all may not matter – at least until the next time they reboot "The Karate Kid" in 2036.

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