This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.It’s probably safe to assume that a good number of us were first exposed to new myths, legends, and fairy tales via animation. The medium is the perfect place for that sort of story. After all, not being bound by the constraints of reality arguably makes us more open to the fantastical worlds presented therein. It is then little surprise that the newest effort to bring the well-known legend of The Monkey King to Western audiences has been done in this form with the latest in Netflix‘s string of original animated films.
Directed by Anthony Stacchi, with a script from Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman and Rita Hsiao, The Monkey King follows the titular simian (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) as he searches for a family and a sense of belonging. Born from a rock that fell from the skies, he is chaos incarnate and out of place with the fearful community of monkeys where he tries to place himself. When disaster strikes, it motivates him to train and learn how to fight, but even that is not enough to grant him the sense of belonging he craves on Earth.
Instead, he sets a new goal: defeat 100 demons, with help from Stick (Nan Li), an ancient, powerful weapon he stole from the Dragon King (Bowen Yang), thereby granting himself the opportunity to earn immortality from heaven. Along on the misguided — if well-intentioned — quest is Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), a girl who wants to make a difference for her poverty-stricken village and acts as a counterpoint to the rather self-absorbed Monkey King.
‘The Monkey King’ Quickly Brings You up to Speed
Going in, I knew very little about the legend of the Monkey King. Anecdotally, I knew it was a big deal in China. I remembered seeing posters for a film adaptation of the story when I visited Hong Kong in 2016 with my friends who lived locally telling me the character and associated story was a really big deal. This left me with the question of how much of this legend I actually needed to know going into the story.
As a story and an introduction to the legend, The Monkey King does a fantastic job of immersing the audience in the story right away, with quick narration and beautiful, brushstroke-inspired visuals catching you up on anything you need to know. This allows the powerful journey of Monkey King and Lin to do the rest. How this will play to an audience already familiar with the story, I cannot say, but the film feels original enough. It is sufficiently comedic and heartfelt in a manner that should land with audiences, whether this is their first experience with the Monkey King or not.
If the film has one stumbling point, it’s the pacing at the beginning. The Monkey King as a whole has an emotional core, as well as the general emphasis of the Monkey King’s quest, but the film still feels episodic in nature. This works in the movie’s favor, but the way the first few sequences are paced feels as though they were building into something longer. Once the film gets into a groove, you’ll be able to settle into it a lot more easily.
‘The Monkey King’ Finds Nuance Where It Counts
The film’s central thesis, that everyone needs somewhere to belong, seems simple on paper. However, it winds up being much more nuanced in practice. Oftentimes, it feels like the answer to a search for belonging is either a painfully obvious option, or to simply be yourself then everything else will follow. What narratives like that don’t catch, but which The Monkey King explores in depth, is just how unrealistic and lonely those respective options are. Even if it seems obvious that the Monkey King’s friendship with Lin could be the answer to his search for belonging, by the time they meet he already has his sights set on immortality. The character is painfully arrogant, and messy. It’s understandable, of course. Anyone who has ever felt out of place will recognize a defense mechanism when they see it, and the way it is dealt with is a surprising, unique angle for a film of this kind.
Between the strong message and relatable character journey at the heart, as well as the absolutely stunning animation that makes up the film, we are truly living in an unprecedented era for the medium. It is a joy to get the chance to experience new stories from a wider range of storytellers who just want the chance to share art that matters to them. Studios should not be afraid to try new things and new styles, especially when passion means it pays off this spectacularly.
The Big Picture
- The Monkey King is a beautifully animated film that immerses the audience in its classic story, making it accessible to those unfamiliar with the legend.
- The film explores the theme of belonging with nuance, showing that the search for a place to belong is not always straightforward or easy.
- With its strong message, relatable character journey, and stunning animation, The Monkey King showcases the value of new and unique storytelling.
The Monkey King arrives on Netflix on August 18.