Skip to content

THE MONKEY KING (2023) review

August 30, 2023


written by: Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman and Rita Hsiao
produced by: Peilin Chou
directed by: Anthony Stacchi
rated: PG (for action/violence and brief thematic material)
runtime: 96 min.
U.S. release date: August 18, 2023 (Netflix)


Based on the classic 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, the computer-animated feature “The Monkey King” offers an update to a tale that will be familiar to a select few, but serve as a gateway into such folklore for most. Considering the name of that novel doesn’t really come into play until the very end, the frenetic and funny iteration that director Anthony Stacchi (“The Boxtrolls” and “Open Season”) is clearly designed to be an introductory story for viewers. That’s totally fine if you know next to nothing about the legend, but the story doesn’t stray too far from typical origin tropes that you’d find from the fantasy genre, leaving very little originality to take in. It feels like what is presented is set-up for future adventures, that seems unlikely to happen.

The setting is way back in the Ming Dynasty, when a monkey is born from a stone that fell from the sky one night. It is as strange and out of place as it sounds, especially to the community of monkeys he tries to integrate with. Since he is the manifestation of chaos, Monkey (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) isn’t accepted there or anywhere, and he’s about to be banished by the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee) for his unruly behavior but Buddha (BD Wong) intercedes and suggests Monkey is allowed to find his life purpose.

Right away, it becomes quite clear this is an extremely insecure character. It’s likely because he didn’t feel accepted anywhere or by anyone, but some of that is understandable considering the grating and annoying personality Monkey has. I wouldn’t want anything to do with him either.

At some point, he gets it in his head that he should ascend to god status and maybe then he’ll be accepted by all. He spends years in exile undergoing his own extensive physical training. When he’s defeated by a demon, Monkey realizes he’s going to need a special weapon to assist him in his dreams of ascension. He makes his way into the sea realm overseen by the Dragon King (Bowen Yang) and there he communicates with a nearby floating Golden Column which turns into a powerful spear he calls Stick (voiced by Nan Li) and winds up stealing the weapon while making his way back to the surface.



Wielding this weapon, he proclaims himself The Monkey King and sets out to kill 100 demons. Again, it seems moreso for his own insecure ego than anything else. No one is asking him to do this nor are they paying him. What’s his plan after he enters the heavens and becomes a god? The last thing anyone needs is a god with a fragile ego, but all he cares about is achieving this legendary status.

One day, Monkey King comes across a village that has been terrorized by Red Girl (Sophie Jean Wu) and after he defeats her, a young girl from the village named Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) pledges herself to his side as an assistant. Reluctantly, he agrees and we soon see a dramatic difference in personalities and ideologies. Lin wants to protect her poor village after a devastating drought, while Monkey King wants fame and recognition. In his ongoing quest, Monkey King ventures into Heaven and Hell to pursue immortality, battling all sorts of foes to reach his dream, unknowingly putting distance between Lin and her goal as they get closer to the end of their odyssey.

The story takes Monkey King and company to Hell, where they encounter a determined enemy as they search for a special elixir. They also head to Heaven, which is protected by Queen Wangmu (Jodi Long). And there’s time in a peach garden, where experiences with drugged fruit make everyone a little weird (an overused bit). Each location offers some spectacular visuals, but that’s about it.

There’s quite a bit to taken in with “The Monkey King”, which drops viewers in the midst of a fantasy world without much in the way of establishing who’s who, what’s what, and where we are. Sure, the familiar skeleton of the arrogant hero’s journey is there, but the machinations of how things work in the this world gets a little hazy. Plenty of information is dumped in the first half and Stacchi shows very little interest in pausing for establishing or developing the characters we’re asked to follow. To be fair, this is probably not a deal breaker for younger viewers, which is quite possibly the target audience here, but those adults who are at least somewhat familiar with the legend of the titular character may feel both underwhelmed and overwhelmed.



Interestingly enough, one of the executive producers of “The Monkey King” is Hong Kong actor and filmmaker Stephen Chow, primarily known for “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle” which specialize in featuring comedic action. The manic energy of his movies can certainly be felt here, with goofy behavior merging with big action moments. It feels like that’s mostly what this movie is for, but there’s a lack of a needed balance here. There’s definitely a need to come up for air from the aggressiveness of all the crazy here, but ultimately it feels like Stacchi isn’t concerned with any of that. There’s bound to be inevitable comparison’s to the “Kung Fu Panda” movies, and there’s not that can be done with that. At this point anthropomorphic animals practicing marital arts is almost a subgenre of animation.

That being said, animation is the best way to present these kinds of stories. There’s more room for creativity and possibilities in animation and at the very least, “The Monkey King” reminds us of this. The last thing I want to see is another live-action telling of animal protagonists like Disney’s recent “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book”, both unnecessary and quite boring, but the animated originals are timeless classics.

Screenwriters Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, and Rita Hsiao try to shoehorn a subplot involving the Lin character that essentially doesn’t really pan out. Of the two protagonists, she is the more complex character, (which is not that much of a stretch considering Monkey King is one-dimensionally self-absorbed), but the plotline involving her dilemma doesn’t have the emotional heft it should. Which is, again, primarily because the focus here is physical over anything involving emotional complexity.

The climatic activity in the third act of “The Monkey King” winds up in familiar and predictable territory. After “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”, also released this month, here we have yet another animated feature to conclude with a kaiju threat. The movie could’ve benefitted from a stronger focus on character and emotions, as well as a bit more loony quirk to mix things up.



No comments yet

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: