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Aggressively mediocre, Netflix’s “The Monkey King” takes no risks and offers too little humor, heart, or action to entertain all but the youngest in the family. Anyone in your clan old enough to read and not merely be enchanted by loud noises and flashing colors will likely get bored by this 96-minute movie that feels twice as long.
Tales of the Mandarin Chinese character known as Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, have been told for generations, adapted into manga, TV series, and films many times. In fact, the great Stephen Chow, who made “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” in 2013 (along with must-sees “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer,” both directly referenced here) is an executive producer on this project, lending a bit of cultural credence to a Chinese tale being told by an American animator. However, director Anthony Stacchi, who helmed the hit “Open Season” and the excellent “The Boxtrolls,” fails to find enough that feels like actual cultural specificity here. It’s a truly generic tale of heroism, a road trip movie that takes two characters literally to Hell and back but doesn’t find much of interest on the journey. It’s a harmless animated adventure and a time-killer. Sometimes that’s all it takes for harried parents, but one of the most famous legends in Chinese history deserves better.
Telling part of the first section of Journey to the West, “The Monkey King” centers that tome’s most beloved character, voiced a bit annoyingly by an inconsistent Jimmy O. Yang. Considering himself more than an ordinary simian, The Monkey King strives to be an immortal, and to be one, he must defeat 100 demons with his magical staff (Nan Li), a clever idea rendered dully here. He eventually partners with a girl named Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) on his journey into mythological history, and the partnership between a monkey who is convinced he’s a hero and a girl who’s convinced she could never be one does give a film that was too narratively loose some much-needed structure (although it’s interesting to note that Lin is a creation of this version of this tale and not the source).
“The Monkey King” gets its most visual and character strength from the Dragon King, a singing, dancing, power-mad creation voiced well by Bowen Yang of "Saturday Night Live." A true villain in a piece that doesn’t have one for too long, Yang’s egocentric demon gives the final act of “The Monkey King” some needed stakes and some well-crafted fight choreography, courtesy of Siwei Zou. When the film occasionally channels Chow’s sense of martial arts whimsy, it finds some momentum. But it regularly then lurches to a halt for a generic conversation between Monkey and Lin or another episodic encounter along the way, often scored to a heavy-metal riff that mistakes loud for exciting.
Of course, “The Monkey King” will eventually impart some lessons, including one about the title character getting too powerful for his own good in the final act. That the script by Ron J. Friedman, Stephen Bencich, and Rita Hsiao includes the actual Buddha in its climax could lead to a few interesting conversations with the little ones about peace, acceptance, and belief. However, like so many aspects of “The Monkey King,” it's more like a prompt instead of an actual conversation.
Netflix has excelled over the last few years with some of the best animation out there. Projects like “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” got a lot of deserved attention, but there have also been many lesser-known family flicks that featured far more ambition than what’s often seen in theaters (“Klaus,” “The Sea Beast,” “The Willoughbys,” and more). I approached “The Monkey King” with the hope it could be 2023’s surprise Netflix animated classic. It won’t be joining the immortals of the form any time soon.
On Netflix now.
Jimmy O. Yang as Monkey King (voice)
Bowen Yang as Dragon King (voice)
Jolie Hoang-Rappaport as Lin (voice)
Jo Koy as Benbo (voice)
Ron Yuan as Babbo (voice)
Hoon Lee as Jade Emperor (voice)
Stephanie Hsu as Mayor's Wife (voice)
Andrew Pang as Mayor (voice)
James Sie as Elder Monkey (voice)
B.D. Wong as Buddha (voice)