It’s safe to suppose that many of us were first introduced to new myths, stories, and fairy tales through animation. The medium is ideal for telling such a narrative. After all, not being constrained by the restrictions of reality allows us to be more receptive to the imaginative realms offered in it. It’s no wonder, however, that the latest effort to transmit the well-known legend of The Monkey King to Western viewers has been done in this format with Netflix’s latest original animated feature.
The Monkey King, directed by Anthony Stacchi and written by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, and Rita Hsiao, follows the eponymous simian (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) as he looks for a family and a feeling of belonging. He is chaos personified, born from a boulder that fell from the sky, and he feels out of place in the scared community of monkeys where he attempts to fit in. When calamity occurs, he is motivated to train and learn how to fight, but even this is unable to provide him with the sense of belonging he seeks on Earth.
Instead, he establishes a new goal: vanquish 100 demons with the assistance of Stick (Nan Li), an old, strong weapon he stole from the Dragon King (Bowen Yang), providing himself with the opportunity to acquire heaven’s immortality. Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), a teenager who wants to make a difference for her impoverished community and acts as a counterweight to the somewhat self-absorbed Monkey King, joins the wrong — though well-intentioned — quest.
I knew very little about the tale of the Monkey King when I went in. I knew that was a major problem in China from personal experience. I recall seeing posters for a film adaptation of the narrative when I visited Hong Kong in 2016 with my local friends who told me the character and connected story was a huge thing. This begged the question of how much of the mythology I needed to know before diving into the narrative.
The Monkey King does an excellent job of engaging the viewer in the plot straight immediately, with rapid narration and stunning, brushstroke-inspired images catching you up on everything you need to know. This frees up Monkey King and Lin’s great quest to do the rest. I’m not sure how this will play to an audience who is already familiar with the subject, but the picture feels fresh enough. It is sufficiently humorous and poignant to captivate viewers, whether this is their first encounter with the Monkey King or not.
If there is one flaw in the film, it is the pace at the start. The Monkey King features an emotional core, as well as a general emphasis on the Monkey King’s journey, although the picture remains episodic in nature. This works in the film’s favour, but the speed of the opening few moments feels like it’s building to something bigger. You’ll be able to relax into the film much more easily as it gets into a rhythm.
On paper, the film’s core argument, that everyone needs a place to belong, appears straightforward. In practice, though, it becomes much more intricate. Often, it appears that the answer to a desire for belonging is either a painfully clear decision or just to be yourself and everything else will follow. What such tales miss, but which The Monkey King delves into, is how impractical and lonely those respective possibilities are.
Even though it is evident that the Monkey King’s relationship with Lin may be the answer to his desire for belonging, he already has his sights set on immortality by the time they meet. The guy is horribly arrogant and disorganised. Of course, this is understandable. Anyone who has ever felt out of place will recognise a defence mechanism, and the way it is dealt with is an unexpected, one-of-a-kind approach for a film of this type.
We are certainly living in an unparalleled moment for the medium, thanks to the film’s powerful message and sympathetic character development, as well as the incredibly amazing animation. It’s a thrill to be able to hear fresh stories from a larger spectrum of storytellers who just want to share work that means something to them. Studios should not be scared to experiment with new ideas and aesthetics, especially when their enthusiasm pays off so spectacularly.