The Monkey King has been around way longer than the new animated film on Netflix. As the main character from Journey to the West, a 16th-century Chinese tale, the character has become an icon that has spawned many films, shows, and even video games.
The most recent film from Netflix brings a new take on the classic Journey to the West, with an animated feature focusing on the origin of The Monkey King. The film is directed by Anthony Stacchi, who has worked on animated films like Antz, James and the Giant Peach, The Boxtrolls, and even the recent Pinocchio animated film on Netflix. The screenplay was co-written by Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman, the duo that wrote films such as Brother Bear, Chicken Little, Open Season, and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.
[Warning: Spoilers from The Monkey King are below!]
Simple beginnings for a king
The Monkey King takes the viewers back to the very beginning of our hero’s journey, with the story of his birth. On the precipice of a gigantic mountain, Monkey King (Dee Bradley Baker) was born alone, with his purpose in the universe unknown. His mere existence annoys the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee), especially the laser beams that the baby monkey can shoot from his eyes. So the Jade Emperor sets out to get rid of him, that is, until Buddha (BD Wong) steps in.
Buddha informs The Jade Emperor that Monkey King is destined for greatness and should be left alone. The Monkey King moves on and finds himself within a jungle, surrounded by other monkeys. He highly desires to become a part of the groups of monkeys, but remains on the outside due to his powers. He watches from the outside, including the challenges and predators that come to attack the other monkeys. He recognizes the need to protect these other groups so that he can be accepted.
Growing up, our story’s hero (now voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) practiced his martial arts, so that one day he came come to the rescue of his fellow monkeys. However, when the time comes to take down the large tiger, his strength and agility aren’t enough. He’s beaten by the tiger, losing another monkey cub along the way.
The Monkey King decides he has to go on a journey to gather a weapon and the respect of his fellow monkeys.
A powerful staff, a rise to power, and a new friend
The Monkey King travels to the sea realm of the Dragon King (Bowen Yang), in search of a weapon that can rid the world of the demons. Below the water’s surface, he comes into contact with a mystical weapon that can change the tides for the mortal world. He’s able to communicate with the staff and bonds with it, ascending to a new level of hero, with powers beyond his imagination.
Returning to the surface world, our hero defeats the tiger demon, returning the monkey cub to its tribe. In doing so, he assumes the position of ruler over the other monkeys, which doesn’t sit right with some of those within the group. Monkey King uses his position and magical powers to become a demon hunter of sorts, setting off on grand adventures to rid the world of evil. Along the way, he meets a precocious young girl, Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) who joins him in his new life mission.
Can Monkey King and Lin rid the world of the forces of evil? Or will these two find themselves way over their heads? All those answers and more are available in Netflix’s version of Journey to the West.
The positives and negatives of The Monkey King
There’s a ton of story packed into the 96 minutes of this animated film. The adventure that Monkey King takes includes a lot of stops and a ton of history/information packed even almost every scene of the film. The depth in which the writers and creatives explore the history of this epic Chinese tale was fantastic, which left me with a feeling that they truly understood the character and the material they were working with.
I also loved that at the core of this film, it was about acceptance and the lengths that Monkey King goes to find it. This is a conflict that so many struggle with, the desire to find a person or group that will accept us for who we are. Because this desire is so strong, at times we lose ourselves in the act of pursuing acceptance, which is exactly what we see Monkey King go through. The message at the center of The Monkey King, which is a children’s movie after all, helps to normalize what could be an isolating experience that so many go through.
The Monkey King also has a ton of action, which was something that my nephew, the action junkie, loved. A good chunk of the film is filled with heavy action scenes, which take a lot of inspiration from the culture in which the original story comes from. Some specific scenes felt like an exact copy of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, something that both I and my mother noticed independently. So if you liked that film, you can easily gauge how much you’ll enjoy the action sequences in The Monkey King.
Even with all the action present, The Monkey King’s pacing was slow for the majority of the film. Perhaps the most egregious example of the slow pacing was in the first part of the film, where the birth of Monkey King and the establishment of his hero’s journey takes place. I found myself picking up my phone and either checking the time, or doom scrolling during these moments to pass the time.
With so many tellings of The Monkey King, with a few versions already on Netflix, there wasn’t enough to differentiate this one from the others. Pair that with the pacing problems and The Monkey King felt less like mandatory viewing and more so something to fill space and time on the streaming service. If you have younger children, then I’m sure this is a fantastic movie in which to introduce them to the tale. There are enough silly bits and action to entertain them, however, it wasn’t enough to grab my attention.
If you’re a fan of Monkey King and Journey to the West, then you should definitely check this out. However, if you’re looking for something entertaining, you might want to check out something else.
My rating for this film
The Monkey King is available now on Netflix. Will you be checking this film out? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.