The Monkey King: Reborn
by Matt Weiner
Stories of Sun Wukong the Monkey King have been a rich source of adaptations for centuries in China. With no shortage of options to choose from, The Monkey King: Reborn isn’t the worst place for Western audiences to start—but be prepared for an uneven journey.
The animated film directed by Yunfei Wang and written by Wang and Xiaoyu Wu introduces the immortal trickster Sun Wukong (Jiang Bian) as he accompanies his master, the monk Tang Sanzang (Shangqing Su), along with some comedic relief from fellow disciples Bajie and Yuandi (He Zhang and Lei Zhang).
Sun Wukong’s mischief sets off a chain of events that brings him into conflict with the all-powerful first demon, with the fate of the world on the line. But as far as motivation and character backstories go, there’s a lot left unexplained for a kid’s cartoon movie. Which is perfectly understandable for a familiar audience, but that coupled with the occasional adult language in the subtitled version makes the target age for The Monkey King: Reborn tough to pin down.
Once the battles get going and Sun Wukong’s puckishness gives way to (ever so slight) growth as a character, it’s a lot easier to go along for the ride. Even with the action, though, the movie is often hampered by the CGI animation. It’s a style that usually has two modes: alarmingly smooth or video game cutscene. Everything is bright, but the vivid coloring can’t mask a flatness that all the characters share. It’s an unfortunate mismatch for Sun Wukong’s elastic portrayal in the story.
The film does offer a deeply emotional third act, with an emphasis on sacrifice, death and rebirth that might make even Pixar think twice. It’s a shame that we got to know Wukong and friends so little within the confines of the film, or else these moments could have made even more of an impact rather than feeling bolted on. Of course, it wouldn’t be a parable without these teachable moments, so it might as well be in the form of a knockdown CGI fight. Sure, it’s entertainment with a heavy-handed message. But it’s entertaining enough.