The Monkey King (now on Netflix) isn’t just another talking-animal cartoon. No, it’s a Chinese legend dating back to the Ming Dynasty… that’s been adapted as another talking-animal cartoon. That’s a distinction worth making, and one hopes that the allegory and satire of the source material – Wu Cheng’en’s epic novel Journey to the West – aren’t lost among the shenanigans of Americanization and 21st-century visual storytelling. Director Anthony Stacchi (Open Season, The Boxtrolls) oversees the project, with standup comic and Silicon Valley star Jimmy O. Yang giving the braggadocious title character his voice. The movie likely functions as a global introduction to the Monkey King saga, which previously came to life in a few TV series (most recently via Chinese production The New Legends of Monkey, a Netflix original), comics, video games and all the usual big-franchise media-crossover stuff. Will this new English-language iteration of the tale indoctrinate us newbs or make us feel like we’re holding an empty banana peel? Let’s find out.
The Gist: First off, let it be known that Buddha himself is a character in this story (voiced by BD Wong), which is something we Westerners may need to come to grips with. It’s not often deities who aren’t Thor turn up in our films. Anyhow, there once was a monkey who hatched out of a rock and realized he had eye lasers, two things that just don’t happen every day. He is the Monkey King (Yang), or just Monkey, if you’re into the whole brevity thing. The question as to why a monkey would be given such power and a path heavy with destiny is proffered here, but not answered; I guess that’s Buddhism for you? Monkey susses out his grand purpose when a demon routinely harasses his adoptive monkey clan, and he’s the only one who ever even considered fighting back.
It’s important to note the power hierarchy of this reality: Buddha lords over all; beneath him are immortals like the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee), the king of heaven who’s really into throwing extravagant parties; and then there are folks like the Dragon King (Bowen Yang), a foppish gent who rules an undersea kingdom, and what Monkey eventually sort of becomes. And as is true with so many stories that took place prior to the advent of modern “arcs” (you know, the type you learn about in crappy screenwriting classes), Monkey must undergo a journey consisting of several episodic adventures in order to achieve his full Monkeyness.
The first biggie is a trip underwater, where he swipes a magic staff from the Dragon King. The staff is named Stick, and it not only speaks in unintelligible mutterings that sound like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons mumbling quietly into a didgeridoo, but it also seems to possess some intelligence. More importantly, Stick gives Monkey significant powers that might come in handy should he find himself proving his mettle by battling 100 demons in a montage set to heavy metal guitar riffs, which of course he does. It has side effects, though – Stick serves to further feed Monkey’s ego, which is so big, it makes a diplodocus look like a damselfly.
Losing his magic staff doesn’t sit well with the Dragon King, who pursues Monkey and therefore embodies the Arc connecting the remaining Episodes. Another piece of connective tissue is Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), a human girl who becomes Monkey’s sidekick-slash-assistant, despite his constant protests that he’s a loner and is so powerful and doesn’t need anyone, anyone, I tell you. Doth he protest too much? Almost certainly! Monkey decides he needs to become immortal, so he and Lin trek to hell and back and then to heaven and back, which is quite the journey, and then the Dragon King turns up to really test the guy. Will Monkey vanquish the Dragon King without needing a deus ex machina from Buddha himself? NO SPOILERS!
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Netflix’s animation division had a terrific year in 2022 – The Sea Beast and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio were extraordinary, better than anything Pixar has produced in several years. The Monkey King pales in comparison; it’s more on par with solid-but-serviceable fare like Over the Moon.
Watching Hearing: Hoang-Rappaport is crucial in finding the (not-quite-large-enough) heart of the story via Lin. And Yang inspires the most laughs as the fussy and particular Dragon King, who’s self-conscious of his skin drying out and flaking when he’s not in water (the movie’s funniest running gag).
Memorable Dialogue: The Dragon King tests Lin’s loyalty to Monkey: “I don’t see a ring on it, honey!”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Hey Monkey King, chill out. Breeeeeeathhhhhhe. Drink some water. Take a load off. You’re a bit… rambunctious. Overamped. I often felt like I was watching this movie at 1.5x speed, and that might be my middle-agedness talking, but Elemental, Nimona and even The Super Mario Bros. Movie didn’t make you feel like you can’t keep up with its manic energy. (Across the Spider-Verse is guilty of that as well, but with a more visually creative, kaleidoscopic aesthetic.) Again: It’s hard to appreciate the craft and artistry of animation when set pieces blur by like the movie’s trying to best Dominic Toretto in a street race.
Perhaps that’s intentional, though, calculated to align us with Lin’s sense of bewilderment at Monkey’s personality: It takes patience to deal with this level of impatience. And you’ll need a big bucketful – think bulldozer buckets here – of patience while watching The Monkey King, which indulges a few cliches from Dreamworks-circa-2004 animations: Flippant tone, a bevy of dated zingers (you had one job, let’s bring the sass down, etc.), an infuriating protagonist who won’t stop quipping, etc. It feels like the Poochiefication of an ancient, beloved classic of Chinese literature.
Getting an emotional handheld is also a struggle; the Lin character battles through Monkey’s arrogance and antics in order to get at the soft, squishy stuff of his loneliness and need for companionship, but it never sticks. Only the Dragon King inspires some quality laughs, but even then, his big Broadway-esque musical number feels like a facsimile of Bowser’s stop-’em-dead “Peaches” moment. It would take some serious meddling from Buddha himself to make this movie memorable, and more than just another single-use distraction.
Our Call: You can love monkeys and you can love animated movies, but that doesn’t mean the hyperactive, occasionally grating The Monkey King will win you over. SKIP IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.