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‘The Monkey King’ Review: Netflix Toon Deftly Reshapes Chinese Literary Classic Into Action-Packed Fun for Kids

By David Rooney

August 15, 2023

The 16th century literary classic Journey to the West is the mother of all Chinese fantasy. The mythological saga has spawned countless adaptations in various media across Asia and beyond, from the cult late ‘70s Japanese TV series to Peking Opera, videogames, graphic novels and a stage spectacle with a score by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and design elements by Gorillaz illustrator Jamie Hewlett.

Prominent among the innumerable film versions is the 2013 blockbuster Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, directed by Stephen Chow. A similar livewire action-comedy energy infuses Netflix’s The Monkey King, a children’s animated feature based on the sprawling novel’s most popular strand, on which Chow serves as executive producer.

Following well-received originals like KlausOver the MoonMy Father’s Dragon, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood — plus such smart acquisitions as The Mitchells vs. the Machines — Netflix Animation has a far more consistent track record for distinctive projects than the streamer’s starry live-action vehicles.

Directed by Anthony Stacchi (The Boxtrolls), The Monkey King is no exception. It mines rich source material for a widely accessible episodic adventure laced with rowdy martial arts clashes and fantastical detours. Even if its Americanization follows a standard template, the movie maintains a flavorful sprinkling of the material’s cultural specificity, its spiritual elements and its philosophical lessons about hubris and humility.

Just the fact that Buddha himself is a significant character (voiced by BD Wong) in a kid-friendly film intended for global consumption is singular enough. But there’s nothing so complex that youngsters won’t grasp it in the very Buddhist concepts of reflection and enlightenment as illustrated here, or the lesson that even the tiniest pebble can make a huge impact.

The film is drawn from the first part of Journey to the West, detailing the origin story of the title character, a powerful creature hatched out of a magical rock (voiced with lots of pluck by comedian Jimmy O. Yang). Rebuffed in his attempts to form a family with the other apes, Monkey makes a bid to join the Immortals, the pantheon of gods led by the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee). But from the start, Monkey ignores the wise words of the simian Elder (James Sie), who warns him that selfish and rebellious fools end up alone: “Know your place, young one.”

Monkey is basically a superhero with attitude issues, struggling to balance his extraordinary abilities with his ego. In order to achieve immortality, he challenges himself to vanquish 100 demons, starting with the marauding Demon of Havoc (Andrew Kishino) that terrorizes the ape tribe.

He seeks help from the Dragon King (Bowen Yang), but that ruler of the seas — and Vegas showman manqué — turns out to be an even bigger egomaniac than Monkey. The underwater encounter does prove valuable, however, yielding a golden staff (voiced by Nan Li) that becomes as much a companion as a weapon. Though even with its communication capabilities, the rod is depicted here as a generic lightsaber.

Monkey uses the staff to defeat the fiery Red Girl (Sophie Wu) in an aerial kung fu battle, one of many punchy martial arts sequences overseen by fight choreographer Siwei Zou. He reluctantly allows the young peasant girl Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), who professes to be his No. 1 fan, to tag along on his adventures. Lin is the one important character not from the original novel.

They travel to Hell to tackle the bellicose King Yama (Kishino again), hoping to cross Monkey’s name off the register of the dead; and then to Heaven, where he goes up against celestial queen mother Wangmu (Jodi Long), a herbalist who mixes the Elixir of Immortality. But no matter how many demons he slays or how much he measures up to the gods in strength and skill, Monkey continues to wait in vain for the Jade Emperor’s invitation to join the club.

Screenwriters Ron J. Friedman, Stephen Bencich and Rita Hsiao don’t shy away from their protagonist’s obnoxious qualities, spinning gags out of his puerile sense of humor. But they offset the swaggering braggadocio with a hunger to belong and be loved, to be part of a family. A bond of that nature forms almost unwittingly with Lin, despite his stubbornness and her ulterior motives, which are revealed to be altruistic.

While the entire all-Asian voice cast contributes to the colorful characterizations, the scene-stealer is Bowen Yang’s treacherous Dragon King, whose moisture-starved skin necessitates him being carried about on land, sedan chair-style, in a bathtub full of water by his fawning minions, Benbo (Jo Koy) and Babbo (Ron Yuan). That trio seems obviously modeled on Ursula and her eel henchmen from The Little Mermaid, but is no less amusing for it, notably in the Dragon King’s big musical number, “Take the World by Storm,” in which he outlines his plans for a watery apocalypse.

The part of the story that distinguishes it from regular kids’ toons is when Monkey becomes so drunk on power (he even has his own death-metal theme song, complete with wailing ‘80s guitar riffs) that the Jade Emperor is forced to call in the big guns, summoning Buddha.

The lesson that follows leads to a major turning point in Journey to the West, where Monkey becomes one of three supernatural beings assisting a monk on his spiritual quest. That coda will likely mean more to audiences familiar with the legend, though it’s effective enough as a conclusion.

The animators pay due diligence to traditional representation of Chinese mythological characters while allowing themselves sufficient leeway to adapt them for audiences schooled on Pixar. The bossy Mayor’s Wife (Stephanie Hsu) of a small town on Monkey’s journey is a direct nod to a figure familiar from exec producer Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, while his international breakthrough hit Shaolin Soccer gets a shout-out when Monkey shows some fancy footwork in Hell.

The backgrounds often evoke elements of Chinese brush painting, from the lush jungles to the impoverished villages, the bureaucratic hellscape of the underworld to the pillowy cloud structures of Heaven. Production designer Kyle McQueen adds lovely detail to the architecture and costumes. Some aspects of the cross-cultural mashup work better than others, but overall, this is a charming attempt to distill a centuries-old story into a quirky folktale that all children can enjoy.

Bencich and Friedman are represented by the Gotham Group and attorney Rob Szymanski.