September 27, 2023



‘The Monkey King’ Review: Netflix Animated Film Artfully Transforms Chinese Literary Classic Into Exciting Adventure for Children

‘The Monkey King’ Review: Netflix Animated Film Artfully Transforms Chinese Literary Classic Into Exciting Adventure for Children

Anthony Stacchi’s spirited CG-animated fantasy, inspired by Journey to the West, features voice performances from Jimmy O. Yang, Bowen Yang, Stephanie Hsu, and BD Wong.

The 16th-century literary classic Journey to the West is a seminal Chinese fantasy tale. The mythological epic has seen innumerable adaptations across media in Asia and beyond, including a cult 1970s Japanese TV series, Peking Opera, video games, graphic novels, and a stage show with music by Blur’s Damon Albarn and visuals by Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlett.

Among the many film adaptations is the 2013 blockbuster Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, directed by Stephen Chow. A similar vibrant action-comedy spirit pervades Netflix’s The Monkey King, an animated children’s film drawn from the novel’s most beloved narrative, which Chow executive produced.

On the heels of acclaimed original animations like Klaus, Over the Moon, My Father’s Dragon, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood – as well as smart acquisitions like The Mitchells vs. the Machines – Netflix Animation has a much stronger reputation for distinctive films versus the streamer’s hit-or-miss live-action features.

Directed by Anthony Stacchi (The Boxtrolls), The Monkey King mines rich source material for an accessible episodic adventure filled with raucous martial arts brawls and fantastical detours. While its Americanization follows a formula, the film retains flavorful touches of the story’s cultural roots, spiritual elements, and philosophical lessons on arrogance and humility.

The mere fact that Buddha himself (voiced by BD Wong) is a major character in a family-friendly global film is unique. But the Buddhist concepts of reflection and enlightenment, as well as the message that even a tiny pebble can create a huge impact, are simple enough for kids to grasp.

Drawn from the first part of Journey to the West, it details the origin of the titular character, a powerful creature born from a magical rock (voiced by comedian Jimmy O. Yang). Rebuffed by his fellow apes in forming a family, Monkey seeks to join the pantheon of Immortal gods led by the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee). But Monkey ignores the sage advice of Elder Ape (James Sie) who warns that selfish, rebellious fools end up alone: “Know your place, young one.”

Monkey is essentially a superhero with attitude, trying to balance his extraordinary gifts with his ego. To achieve immortality, he challenges himself to defeat 100 demons, starting with the marauding Havoc Demon (Andrew Kishino) terrorizing his ape clan.

Seeking help, Monkey encounters the vainglorious Dragon King (Bowen Yang), ruler of the seas and wannabe Vegas performer. Their underwater meeting proves fruitful, yielding a magical golden staff (voiced by Nan Li) that becomes Monkey’s companion and weapon, albeit depicted generically as a lightsaber.

With the staff, Monkey defeats the fiery Red Girl (Sophie Wu) in aerial kung fu combat, one of many dynamic fight sequences. He reluctantly allows devoted fan Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), a young peasant girl not from the original story, to tag along.

They travel to Hell to fight the belligerent King Yama (Kishino again), hoping to remove Monkey’s name from the register of the dead. Then to Heaven, where he battles queen mother Wangmu (Jodi Long), an herbalist mixing the Elixir of Immortality. But despite his god-like powers, the Jade Emperor never invites Monkey to join the pantheon.

The writers embrace Monkey’s obnoxious qualities, mining humor from his juvenile humor. But they balance the swagger with a yearning to belong and be loved, to have a family. An unlikely bond forms with Lin, despite his stubbornness and her hidden motives, revealed as selfless.

While the all-Asian voice cast excels, Bowen Yang’s treacherous Dragon King steals scenes. His parched skin on land requires a sedan chair and bathtub carried by fawning minions Benbo (Jo Koy) and Babbo (Ron Yuan), an amusing parody of Ursula and her eels in The Little Mermaid. A highlight is the Dragon King’s musical number “Take the World by Storm,” outlining apocalyptic plans.

Distinguishing the story is when Monkey’s intoxication with power forces the Jade Emperor to intervene, summoning Buddha. The resulting lesson marks a pivotal turn where Monkey becomes one of three supernatural entities assisting a monk’s spiritual journey in Journey to the West. While the conclusion resonates more for audiences familiar with the legend, it wraps up the adventure effectively.

The animators respectfully render Chinese mythological figures while adapting them for Pixar-accustomed audiences. The bossy Mayor’s Wife (Stephanie Hsu) nods to a character in exec producer Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, and his hit Shaolin Soccer gets a shoutout in Monkey’s fancy footwork in Hell.

Backgrounds often evoke Chinese brush paintings, from lush jungles to impoverished villages, Hell’s bureaucratic landscape to Heaven’s pillowy clouds. Production designer Kyle McQueen adds lovely details to architecture and costumes. While some cross-cultural blending works better than others, overall this charmingly condenses an ancient story into an offbeat folktale for all kids to enjoy.

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Ralph Calaway