By Ramin Zahed
August 14. 2023
The beloved 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West and its mischievous hero, The Monkey King (a.k.a. Sun Wukong) have inspired numerous live-action and animated adaptations through the years. This summer, thanks to the talented teams of artists at Netflix and ReelFX, a high-energy, new adaptation of the classic arrives on the scene which puts a fresh new take on the classic epic adventure.
Directed by Anthony Stacchi (The Boxtrolls, Open Season) and produced by Peilin Chou (Over the Moon, Abominable), The Monkey King tells the story of the rebellious Monkey (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) and his magical Stick (Nan Li) as they embark on an epic quest to battle over 100 demons, an eccentric Dragon King (Bowen Yang) and Monkey’s worst enemy — his very own ego. Along the way, a young village girl named Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) teaches Monkey one of the biggest lessons of his life. The film is executive produced by Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer).
“Monkey King is an amazing character, even in the original folk tale. He’s so egotistical and arrogant, but he also has mischievous and comedic ways.”
— Director Anthony Stacchi
Interestingly enough, both the film’s producer and director had been wanting to make an animated movie featuring the simian hero for many years. Chou says she and her sister grew up with the original folk tales. “We used to have Monkey King sticks at home, and we fought each other with them,” she tells us. “So, I’d go to school and talk about it, but everyone would ask, “What are you talking about?’ The actual novel is very dense: It’s about a hundred chapters long, and our movie only tackles the first seven. It’s quite challenging to adapt. I actually worked on an adaptation when I was at Disney, and then again on another version when I was at Nickelodeon, but none of them got off the ground. This one is the lucky one that clicked!”
A Tough Tale to Tackle
Meanwhile, Stacchi had also been trying to mount an animated version of the story. “I remember pitching several ideas to Peilin at Pearl Studio — and I love Hong Kong cinema, so I had one or two Chinese-centric projects,” says the director. “During the interview, she asked me if I had heard of Journey to the West and the Monkey King, and at that moment I thought, oh man. I had tried to develop the story for two different studios. When she asked if I would be interested in it, I was thrilled that somebody was going to make it. Because every other time I had tried to develop it, people would not understand the story. I thought nobody has the courage to make it because it’s too weird and complicated!”
Not only did this new version of the classic have Netflix involved, but it also had a secret weapon: Hong Kong filmmaker and actor Stephen Chow, who played the Monkey King in the 2013 movie Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, was on board as producer.
“He’s such an amazing talent, who also happens to be a former Peking Opera performer, as well as a martial artist and 2D animator, too!” says Stacchi. “He would give us some live-action reference for the fights, as well as some 2D animation and drawings along the way. Further along in production, he would offer feedback on the animation. He speaks no English, so our translators were quite busy on this movie, and we’d be on call sometimes at two in the morning because we were all in different time zones.”
According to Chou, one of the reasons the Monkey King has been so popular for several centuries is due to his unbreakable spirit and sense of determination. “He never gives up,” she points out. “He has a very unique narcissistic personality, but he uses it to comedic effect. We also knew that we had to bring this story to the world in a relatable, tangible and comprehensible way, so that it was a nice balance for our audience.”
Stacchi agrees. “He’s an amazing character, even in the original folk tale. He is the original superhero in a way as he’s incredibly powerful and indestructible, but he’s also very modern in the way that he’s also such an antihero: He’s so egotistical and arrogant, but he also has mischievous and comedic ways. So, when you sit down to read the original story, you realize that it’s both entertaining and funny.”
The director also says one of the great aspects of the story is introducing the new character of Lin, a young girl who doesn’t totally understand what’s going on, so she helps the viewers discover this world through her eyes. “She’s this perfect character who wants to do something special with her life, and then she meets this arrogant jerk who never takes no for an answer,” says the director. “It’s the perfect character dynamic. She’s so brave, resourceful and clever. When we set the final cut of the movie, someone asked Stephen [Chow] about his favorite character, and he said it was Lin. He said watching this everyday peasant girl traveling to such fantastic locations, such as the Land of the Dead, and battling the gods was a very enjoyable part of the movie.”
Grumpy Old Stick
The film’s highly original anthropomorphized Monkey Stick is another appealing ingredient. “He has a big personality although he doesn’t speak in words,” says Chou. “The foundation of his voice was inspired by Mongolian throat singing. We went on a very long journey to figure out what it would sound like and worked with more traditional sound effects and sound designers along the way. We also worked with Li Nan and his group Voodoo Kungfu, whose music is featured in the film. But it was our composer Toby Chu who told me that he thinks the Stick’s voice should sound like a grumpy old Chinese man! We asked him to try to get certain emotions and expressions, and with the throat singing method, it just felt right and distinctive.”
Stacchi says one of the key challenges of the project was trying to stay true to the authenticity of the book’s spiritual journey. “Monkey has to confront the Jade Emperor, and the has to fight Buddha, so we really had to come up with the right visuals for the final battle between the Monkey King and his nemesis the Dragon King,” he notes. It was important for us to anchor the film on a normal world, so that the fantastic elements have something to bounce off. As my friend, the director Mike Mitchell [Kung Fu Panda 4, Trolls] says, ‘If everything’s weird, then nothing’s weird!’ We definitely wanted to work with a classical look for our Monkey, inspired by Peking Opera, but he’s walking around in the normal world.”
The production reached out to production designer Kyle McQueen (The Willoughbys, Sausage Party) to achieve a special look inspired by Chinese brush paintings on rice paper.
“One of the tricky parts of the project was that there have been so many iterations and versions of Monkey done in every sort of media. A lot of the design for the character came from the writing, which told us that he was an anti-hero who was kind of gruff and arrogant, but loveable at the same time. We had to distill all those ideas into a visual look and then create a landscape for him that harmonized with all those ideas.”
McQueen looked at classic Chinese watercolor paintings as the starting point for his designs. “Tony had done some initial research on what he liked to see, and they were these beautiful landscapes which have this beautiful and elegant feel to them. Then, I dug more into Chinese art. The look also came out of Chinese calligraphy and brushwork, and their elegance and gestural feel. A lot of the color palettes were taken from these more sort of subtle, sort of subdued watercolor paintings. This allowed us to place our villains and extraordinary demons to exist in this earthly realm. We were able to have this back and forth and signal our villains’ moment with certain colors.”
“It’s really about this notion that you have the ability to change the world and you can make an impact on other people’s lives. I also love that our little girl character is the one who really learns that and embodies this idea.”
— Producer Peilin Chou
McQueen, who is based in London, Ontario, worked remotely with the team at ReelFX in Montreal. “We started working right when the pandemic first hit, and all the different time zones were kind of a challenge, but the studio did a great job delivering what we were looking for. It wasn’t an easy project, but everyone really stepped up and pushed themselves, and I think the results are pretty excellent. Visually, we were going for something that had a bit more of a heightened feel and we had to the track the emotional scope of the color across the film.”
Chou and Stacchi are both hoping that the film will spark new interest in the classic text. Stacchi says, “We’d be thrilled if audiences around the world discover this really interesting character because of our movie.” Chou adds, “One of my favorite things about the film is that we came upon this idea of writing your own scroll, and that idea evolved through the years … It’s really about this notion that you have the ability to change the world, and you can make an impact on other people’s lives. I also love that Lin, our little girl character, is the one who really learns that and embodies this idea.”
Writers Steve Bencich and Rob J. Friedman are represented by the Gotham Group and attorney Rob Szymanski.