The Chinese myth of the Monkey King, also known as Sun Wukong, dates back centuries. The character is one of the main characters in the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which has been adapted for film and TV countless times.
Arguably, one of the biggest and flashiest adaptations to date is Netflix’s newest iteration of the story. Anthony Stacchi’s animation mostly focuses on the first parts of Journey to the West, chronicling the Monkey King’s adventures before he heads on the titular adventure to the West.
Jimmy O. Yang voices the Monkey King here. Born out of a rock, he searches for his place in the world and finally decides on his purpose; to become an Immortal One. Already possessing some magical powers, the monkey steals a magical stick (literally called Stick) from the Dragon King (Bowen Yang) and begins his quest to become immortal.
Monkey recruits a young villager Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) to help him, but the Dragon King is catching up, adamant in stealing Stick back for his own world domination needs. On their quest, Lin and Monkey travel to Hell and Earth, fight demons and, ultimately, Monkey’s own ballooned sense of self.
Aimed at a very young audience, The Monkey King is crazy and colourful but also a little hollow. It’s constantly on the verge of greatness but can’t quite make the leap.
The biggest issue in the film is Monkey himself. There’s really no subtle or easy way to say this; he’s annoying. Like, really, really annoying. Part of that is certainly by design as the Monkey sets out on a journey of self-discovery as well as immortality, but even at just 92 minutes, The Monkey King asks for, and then tests, your patience.
The character of Lin is better handled. Voiced delightfully by Hoang-Rappaport, Lin is far more interesting and her motives are more complex and thus, more fascinating. While The Monkey King never quite settles on the themes it wants to explore, the idea of your life never amounts to anything special is such a universally recognised one, it’s enough to power the film.
But Stacchi and his writers, Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman and Rita Hsiao, never find The Monkey King’s identity. Granted, the story has been adapted so many times, it can be difficult to find your own flavour of doing it. But Stacchi refuses to take any creative risks, making The Monkey King bland and dull.
It feels like several components of the film are borrowed from better films; the Dragon King’s look is a bit too close to the dragons of Raya and the Last Dragon, which also share some narrative similarities. The Dragon King’s two servants, named Benbo and Babbo, seem almost identical to Pain and Panic from Hercules, even in their colouring.
That being said, The Monkey King is absolutely mesmerising visually. With an array of different, detailed textures and bright colours, The Monkey King offers a great alternative to the more polished, traditional animated films of Disney. What The Monkey King might lack in finesse, it makes up in dazzling visuals.
The Monkey King is entertaining enough to entertain younger viewers, but it’s far from Netflix’s best animations. Films such as Mitchells vs. the Machines, Pinocchio and My Father’s Dragon feel far more original and bold in their direction and overall execution.
The Monkey King is streaming on Netflix from 18 August.