Smith first stepped in front of the TV cameras at age five and quickly moved on to making movies, benefiting from adorably good looks, budding theatrical skills and, of course, A-list parents. Like any kid who goes into the family business, Jaden Smith has a leg up (or two) on the competition. His career has been largely launched via his parents' projects, including 'The Karate Kid,' which the Smiths produced with other partners. Jaden Smith may be just shy of 12, but he's already kicking box office butt on par with his mega-star parents, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. His latest film, 'The Karate Kid,' is the young actor's third, and his first starring role. 'Kid' won the box office this past weekend with a take close to $56 million -- more than lapping 'The A-Team,' another remake that was made for nearly three times the budget.
Smith first stepped in front of the TV cameras at age five and quickly moved on to making movies, benefiting from adorably good looks, budding theatrical skills and, of course, A-list parents. Like any kid who goes into the family business, Jaden Smith has a leg up (or two) on the competition. His career has been largely launched via his parents' projects, including 'The Karate Kid,' which the Smiths produced with other partners.
For now, the door is wide open at his dad's production firm, Overbrook Entertainment. The company is already developing the young star's next project, 'Amulet,' a graphic novel adaptation in which both he and sister Willow will star. But now that he's proven his box office mettle, is he poised for long-term success? Jaden's road is well-trodden: Stars from Tatum O'Neal to Jane Fonda have followed in their parents' footsteps to find both success and longevity. But with mixed reviews with regard to talent and an almost exclusively family-driven resume, Jaden's future has yet to be determined. A look at his work and public reception could offer some clues as to what might unfold next.
Street Cred: Jaden Smith's Body of Work
Smith has appeared in just a handful of productions so far, but the pre-teen got an early start. He made his acting debut in 2003 in the television series 'All of Us.' His parents were among the creators of the show, which was based on their own family experience, and starred Duane Martin and LisaRaye.
Just before 'All of Us' got axed from the airwaves in 2007, Jaden Smith made his big-screen debut in 'The Pursuit of Happyness' alongside his famous dad. He played Christopher, the son of his dad's on-screen character, Chris Gardner. The film, which follows the real-life story of a homeless man's struggles and success, was well received, garnering the elder Smith a Best Actor nomination at the 2007 Academy Awards. The younger Smith won for breakthrough performance from the MTV Movie Awards, among others, which collectively established him as a capable new talent.
In 2008, Jaden Smith appeared in 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' a sci-fi remake that starred a handful of Hollywood heavyweights, including Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm and Keanu Reeves. Smith played the estranged stepson of an astrobiologist (Jennifer Connelly) who teams up with the alien messenger (Reeves) to save the world. The movie opened to tepid reviews but won big at the box office, scoring more than $30 million in its opening weekend and easily topping the competition.
'The Karate Kid' is Smith's most aggressive step yet toward the spotlight. This time around, it's not car wax that molds our young grasshopper into a fighting machine, but a jacket that he refuses to hang up. Jackie Chan stars as Mr. Han, replacing the original's Pat Morita as the wise mentor who transforms Dre (Smith) from an ornery bully-target into a disciplined, confident martial arts master. The movie is corny in parts and brutal in others, but undeniably showcases Smith's capabilities -- and room for growth.
The Making of a Star? Critical Commentary
The reception of 'The Karate Kid' has been decidedly mixed, although mostly open-minded, given its shamelessly feel-good storyline and nostalgia for the original. Still, New York Times critic A.O. Scott had some tough love to dole out for the remake's star, calling him a "stiff, recessive actor," adding, "He can be lively and charming, but it is not always possible to tell where Dre's cool, self-protective demeanor stops and Jaden's limitations begin."
IGN reviewer Eric Goldman was more positive about Smith's abilities in 'The Karate Kid,' writing that the actor is "clearly very comfortable in front of the camera," and that "Smith is charming and likable, even though he and Chan are never able to quite find the natural chemistry Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita had in the original."
Critics were more encouraging about his performance in 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.' "Smith does a good job of making Jacob both sympathetic and obnoxious at the same time," wrote a reviewer in View London. Roger Ebert, meanwhile, was mostly disparaging of the film, but believed Smith showed promise, writing, "Young Jaden Smith is an appealing actor, but his character Jacob could use a good spanking, what with endangering the human race with a snit fit."
It was Keanu Reeves, however, who's made perhaps the most glowing comments about the budding star. He told Reelz Channel in 2008 that his young co-star was "very professional" and "takes his work seriously" -- both of which bode well at any age, but even more so when when they're said about a 10-year-old.
Mom and Dad's Hands in Stardom
From 'All of Us' to 'Pursuit' and now 'The Karate Kid,' Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are ushering their son -- and soon their daughter -- through their early careers in terms of both deal-making and professional development. Movie stills that appear during 'The Karate Kid's' credits underscore the presence of guiding hands: Both mom and dad appear in numerous photos on set, working apparent double duty as producers and parents.
Inevitably, the elder Smiths are also serving as acting coaches. "You got to stay true to your character and you just got to be in the moment," Jaden Smith said of his approach to acting. The technique, he explained, is one he learned from his in-house experts. Moviegoers who see 'The Karate Kid' might also find distinct similarities between Jaden's go-to demeanor and that of his dad's, circa the mid-1990s. Smith's jocular, "lively charm" that A.O. Scott notes at times seems ripped from episodes of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,' which starred Will Smith as a fun-loving rapper living in a posh neighborhood.
Jaden also possesses some of his father's musical talent -- not to mention his knack for savvy marketing. Smith is clearly enjoying the benefits of access in pop phenom Justin Bieber's recent release for 'Never Say Never' (also 'The Karate Kid' theme song), which features the young star on the track and in the video, suggesting not only smart co-branding, but a potential new creative avenue for Jaden.
Embracing the family business is tried and true and mostly successful: Martin Sheen, Jon Voight and, more recently, Demi Moore have all watched their acting progeny make a place for themselves in Hollywood. But with a lot of growing up to do and potential curveballs ahead (drugs and other vices; puberty), Jaden Smith faces a number of unknowns that could shape his career.
For Macaulay Culkin, whose father is former stage actor Christopher Culkin, transitioning from the adorable 'Home Alone' kid to a gawky teen was too much to shoulder. He stepped away from acting during his early teens ('Richie Rich' in 1994) until his early twenties ('Party Monster' in 2003). Recently, Culkin performed voice roles on 'Robot Chicken' and appeared in several episodes of 'Kings,' NBC's ill-fated series based on the story of David and Goliath.
One of Jaden's better role models might be Colin Hanks. Like Jaden, Colin made his acting debut at a tender age, appearing in 'That Thing You Do!', a film that his father Tom produced and directed in 1996. It would be two roles and three years until Colin would appear in another of his father's productions -- this time, as a lieutenant in the series 'Band of Brothers.' Since then, Colin's work has had little to do -- directly, at least -- with that of his father. The 33-year-old has yet to headline a major feature, but he has been building an impressive career with roles that span comedies ('The House Bunny'), television drama ('Mad Men') and light-hearted indie fare ('Barry Munday'), all of which should serve him well in a future marquee role.
Jaden's ability to deliver nuanced, more mature (yes, even for a 12-year-old) performances is yet to be established. Once he gets through the requisite, shock-and-awe tentpoles, he should look to opportunities that might let us see some real acting chops. A poignant coming-of-age story, a la 'The Cider House Rules,' or a real-life story, like 'The Basketball Diaries' -- especially if it's produced by someone beyond the Smith family -- would be his best bet to gain some real credibility. Even better if he can help break new ground for young, non-white actors, for whom such opportunities have traditionally been few and far between.
For the moment, the young star is on track with family-made fare, and his best role models are his own parents. Between their respective career evolutions and major starpower, they've broken ground in their own rights, and shown that it is possible to go from broad jocularity to serious acting -- and back again. Smith's future remains to be seen, but what's already clear is that he's arrived and is ready to do mom and dad proud.