The Monkey King

In ancient times when the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee) was Lord of the Immortals, demons walked among us and the Dragon King (Bowen Yang) ruled the seas, everything was in balance until a rambunctious, rebellious, egotistical, half immortal creature was born of a rock – “The Monkey King.”

Laura's Review: B

A character from one of the stories in the 16th-century Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West,’ the Monkey King, whose legend may be almost 1,000 years older than the novel, has been featured in live action and animated films since at least 1927.  This latest iteration, inspired by executive producer Stephen Chow, director of "Kung Fu Hustle" and "Shaolin Soccer" both of which are referenced in this film, is a hyperactively paced adventure about the Monkey King’s (Jimmy O. Yang) attempt to attain immortality.  He’ll be accompanied by peasant girl Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), hoping to save her village from a drought, who he continually mocks as an ‘insignificant pebble’ only to learn that a small stone can make a big ripple.

"Open Season's" Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman and 1998 "Mulan's" Rita Hsiao quickly establish the Monkey King’s character when, first rejected by a mother monkey, then condescended to by an Elder Monkey (James Sie), he rebels with an ‘I’ll show you’ attitude that finds him first stealing the ‘Grand Column’ of the underwater Dragon King, henceforth known as his Stick (Nan Li), then battling the Demon of Havoc (Andrew Kishino) to save a baby monkey.  Still, the Elder calls him a fool, telling him he’ll need to defeat 100 demons to gain the attention of the Immortals and so that is what the Monkey King sets out to do, the Dragon King, carried over land in a bathtub palanquin by his hapless henchmen Babbo (Ron Yuan) and Benbo (Jo Koy), hot on his trail to retake the stick.  And Lin will follow as he saves a Mayor’s (Andrew Pang) son from the Red Girl (Sophie Wu), leveling the town by way of the Mayor’s Wife’s (Stephanie Hsu) fireworks shop; goes to Hell to erase his name from King Yama’s (Andrew Kishino) life scroll then to Heaven itself where he’ll battle Queen Wangmu (Jodi Long) trying to obtain her Elixir of Immortality.  But it will be the Buddha (BD Wong) himself, the real ruler of the Heavens, who determines the fate of the Monkey King.

Director Anthony Stacchi ("The Boxtrolls") mixes the colorful, plasticine look of CGI created characters with touches of more subtle Chinese brushwork, dipping into a hand drawn comic book look for one sequence where the Monkey King takes on multiple demons.  The film is so relentlessly paced it could have used a few more rest points, but kung fu action is painstakingly choreographed, the animation is vibrant, and its humor is both visual and character driven.  The Mayor’s Wife, for example, boasts a full head of hair curlers in a nod to “Kung Fu Hustle” while her son is such a literal big baby, the Monkey King and Lin mistake him for the demon.  The film also features more lessons, its hero laid low to consider the value of humility and empathy, his last act appreciation of Lin heartfelt. 

Robin's Review: C+

A monkey is born of a stone and given great supernatural powers. His ego, though, pushes him to seek greatness and he vows to defeat 100 demons. This act of great heroism, he thinks, is enough to enter the highest realm to take his deserved seat alongside the Immortal Ones who rule the animal world in “The Monkey King.”

Of course, I did due diligence and looked into the story that “The Monkey King” is based (very loosely I found) on - the Chinese Ming Dynasty epic myth, Journey to the West, So, I looked up classic story and, to my surprise, the three-part yarn does not have our titular monkey as the lead character.

With this understanding of the original story, I have a problem on how director Anthony Stacchi and his team of writers – Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman and Rita Hsiao – came up with an adaptation that is based on a selfish and egotistical higher primate who thinks the world owes him – whether it does or it does not.

The Monkey King (Jimmy O. Yang), from the start, aspires to greatness, assured in his knowledge of this fact. As such, MK does not have a real character arc as the story unfold. Through most of the movie he is a selfish and egotistical monkey bestowed with great powers and abuses those powers for his own gain.

A young disciple to Monkey, named Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), declares her loyalty to him and helps him acquire the magic stick that focuses his powers. But, there is a sinister element with the Dragon King (Bowen Yang) tempting the young girls to betray Monkey – but with the best of reasons for which she has no choice.

So we have Monkey trying for immortality, the Dragon King vying for his own share of power, a young girl of mixed loyalties (with the best of intentions) and a bunch of Immortal Ones who greedily want to hold onto their control of the world challenged by Monkey.

This is not a description of the source material, except for Monkey’s journey to enlightenment (far too late into the story) and redemption. This part seemed tacked onto the end of a story that is stuffed with MMA-action, Monkey-style, and lots of bright, flashing lights to entertain the kids,

My problem with “The Monkey King” is that I simply did not like Monkey. His ego and always-right, never-wrong attitude and blind ambition, despite the repercussion, do not make me a fan of MK. There may have been messages strewn about here but I do not think selfishness should be one of them.

Netflix begins streaming "The Monkey King" on 8/18/23.