The Monkey King
This action-heavy Eastern-themed Netflix adventure amps up the computer-animated fun but skimps on the emotional side of the scales.
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I don’t have much first-hand knowledge of Buddhism, but I’ve always seen it as a faith that values realistic attitudes about human nature. Unlike Western religions that harp on a lot of do’s and don’ts, Buddhists focus on each person striving to better themselves, a big part of which is embracing a sense of balance in all aspects of life.
“The Monkey King” is set against the backdrop of Buddhism, but its own scales are way out of whack.
This new computer-animated adventure is full of martial arts-style action and is plenty of visceral fun. But it doesn’t exert a lot of energy to incorporate the emotional side of the storytelling.
It feels like a great big tilt-a-whirl of a movie, full of fights and cool mythological creatures and even a few gods. I suspect kids 10 and under will enjoy it more than people above that age. Me, I like some feels mixed in with all the frenetic chop-socky.
Comedian Jimmy O. Yang provides the voice of the titular character, a strange red-tinged monkey hatched from a rock-egg and born with special powers. He seems to exist apart from the indifferent Immortals who reign from the heavens and the demons who haunt the Earth.
Shunned by the regular monkeys and their teachings about being an insignificant pebble in a vast universe, Monkey King hones his fighting skills and stokes his own ego as he grows to maturity. Challenged with overcoming the Demon of Havoc who torments the monkey island, he dives into the ocean and finds a weapon of great power, a sentient rod that glows, changes size and can even travel through the different planes of existence, which he simply calls Stick.
Easily dispatching the one demon, Monkey King is told he must defeat a hundred if he is gain the notice of the Immortals. As his feats and fame grow, so do his ambitions. He goes on a quest to obtain immortality so that he can take his place among the gods themselves.
As is of often the case, the gods are self-interested prigs who aren’t too keen on sharing power. They include the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee), who rules imperiously from his great cloud castle; Yama, the god of death (Andrew Kisino), depicted as a grousing bureaucrat; and Wangmu (Jodi Long), the peevish mistress of alchemy and lightning.
Buddha is around, voiced by BD Wong, but is something of a distant, ethereal entity who only steps in when things get truly dicey.
Monkey King has competition on earth in the form of the Dragon King (Bowen Yang), banished beneath the ocean owing to serious dermatological challenges. He was planning to use Stick for some nasty take-over-the-world schemes before Monkey stole it. He’s a fun, slightly swishy villain and even gets a cool song-and-dance sequence.
In his corner, Monkey King has an admirer in Lin, a young peasant girl voiced by Jolie Haong-Rappaport. She claims to be his biggest fan and offers her services as assistant and weapon-bearer. Monkey continually dismisses Lin and degrades her, but she keeps proving herself useful and gradually begins to gain his trust.
“The Monkey King” is loosely based on “Journey to the West,” one of the oldest and most revered Chinese novels, on a scale with something like Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Director Anthony Stacchi previouisly made the excellent “The Boxtrolls,” and the screenplay is by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman and Rita Hsiao.
The animation (by ReelFX) is quite good, very colorful with lots of little details you can pick out during the rare calmer moments. The action scenes are well-staged and comprehensible, with Monkey King whirling Stick around at helicopter speed while smacking around countless adversaries.
A lot of movies like this feature a hero who’s misunderstood, a loner who learns to integrate themselves back into society. With Monkey King, he’s so boastful and capricious it can be hard to muster a lot of empathy for him. He treats Lin so shabbily that when she finally starts to buck him, we find ourselves rooting for her more than him.
“The Monkey King” is above-average weekend entertainment fodder — the sort of thing you can watch with the whole family and enjoy. But it won’t live eternally in your heart.