THE STORY – Inspired by an epic Chinese tale, translated into an action-packed comedy, a Monkey and his magical fighting Stick battle demons, dragons, gods and the greatest adversary of all – Monkey’s ego.
THE CAST – Jimmy O. Yang, Bowen Yang, Jo Koy, Stephanie Hsu, BD Wong & Jolie Haong-Rappaport
THE TEAM – Anthony Stacchi (Director), Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman & Rita Hsiao (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 92 Minutes
No other studio produces as varied animated films as Netflix. Their films shift significantly in animation style, storytelling, and overall quality from film to film. Their latest animated feature, “The Monkey King,” adapts the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West” into a family-friendly action comedy with an all-star Asian voice cast. With so few historical Chinese stories brought to mainstream American audiences, especially in the medium of animation, this film had a wonderful opportunity to do something different. But even though “The Monkey King” features lovely themes of self-acceptance and determination, it rarely brings anything fresh to the table. Instead, it resembles every generic animated kids’ movie more closely than its rich source material resulting in a lost opportunity.
“The Monkey King” is brought to life by Academy Award-nominated director Anthony Stacchi (“The Boxtrolls”). “Silicon Valley” star Jimmy O. Yang voices the titular Monkey King, hatched from a rock in the heavens, yet living amongst a monkey community on Earth. Immediately and without explanation, the Monkey King is antisocial and irritable. He’s lonely and unloved. While the film seems to seek sympathy from the audience for his loneliness, this main character is more off-putting than a lovable anti-hero. However, that’s not an indictment of Yang’s performance, which is quite good, but rather poor character development that doesn’t show the audience why the Monkey King acts the way he does. Feeling like an outcast, the Monkey King decides to become eternal to gain acceptance from the other immortals in the heavens.
One of the primary problems with “The Monkey King” is its rushed storytelling that moves from plot point to plot point without carefully conveying its story or producing compelling enough character development. By abruptly hitting each story beat so quickly, the film loses its intrigue and, ultimately, the audience’s interest. To gain immortality, the Monkey King must slay 100 demons. Before accomplishing this task, he must steal a magic stick from the Dragon King (Bowen Yang). These tasks, along with the Monkey King’s birth and feelings of being ostracized, all happen within the first 15 minutes of the movie, and that hurried pace persists throughout the film. The slaying of the first 99 demons, a wildly tricky task, doesn’t even get much screen time, thus robbing the story of any stakes. The Monkey King completes this seemingly difficult task in a brief montage before encountering his 100th demon, which is much more challenging than the rest.
The montage of slaying the 99 demons, though it exemplifies the film’s rushed storytelling, is also the visual high point of “The Monkey King.” While most of the movie is relatively un-stylized, looking indistinguishable from most other computer-animated films, this brief but stunning sequence shifts into a painted brushwork style. It’s full of expressionistic shadows, gorgeous colors, and kinetic action that flows seamlessly from monster to monster. “The Monkey King” needed more flourishes of style like this throughout, taking advantage of the rich artistic history that comes with a story from ancient China to make up for the clumsy storytelling. Alas, the rest of the film features competent, if unremarkable, animation.
While the Monkey King’s arrogance is a bit off-putting, he eventually pairs up with a young girl named Lin (Jolie Haong-Rappaport) to help him defeat his powerful opponents. In Haong-Rappaport’s performance, Lin comes across as a much more compelling character, full of compassion and determination to help save her village. Her addition helps balance the story, giving it a needed boost of humanity. As a whole, the ensemble cast each delivers solid voice performances, even if talented performers only have minor roles—for instance, B.D. Wong plays Buddha (yes, that one), and Stephanie Hsu plays the Mayor’s Wife (unnamed). Both do a decent job with what they have to work with, but they’re underutilized, given the talent they possess. Comedians Jo Koy and Ron Yaun play The Dragon King’s henchmen, Benbo, and Babbo (think Pain and Panic from Disney’s “Hercules”), but the side characters also don’t get much time to shine. However, the Jade Emperor, played by Hoon Lee, serves as a haughty foil for the Monkey King. There’s also the Monkey King’s magic stick that acts as a sort of sidekick (or sidestick?). It’s anthropomorphized in a charming way that gives some personality to the team, which will appeal to younger audiences.
And that’s where “The Monkey King’s” sweet spot lies. It’s an adequate and generic film meant to entertain children but sadly fails to rise to anything above that bare minimum. With such rich source material, there’s no reason for “The Monkey King” to lack cultural specificity or emotional resonance. There are flashes of brilliance, such as the previously mentioned stylized paintbrush montage, but the film never follows through with that promise. Instead, it suffers from formulaic character arcs and rushed storytelling. “The Monkey King” could’ve been much worse, but as is, it should’ve been much better.