The Monkey King
by George Wolf
This year’s animated features have already wowed us with spiders and turtles, so why not monkeys?
Netflix gives it a go with the latest take on a well-loved story from Chinese literature, landing scattershot moments of humor and visual flair amid a rambling narrative grasping for anything to call its own.
Our titular Monkey King (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) is on a quest, too. After being born from a magical rock, his exuberance and ambition gets him exiled from his village for being an agent of chaos. The Immortals in Heaven insist on the rules of balance, and the little Monkey King just cannot follow them.
But Buddha himself (BD Wong) intercedes, telling the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee) that a great destiny awaits the Monkey King. And once he is able to steal “Stick” (Nan Li), the all-powerful Grand Column of the undersea Dragon King (Bowen Yang), Monkey King sets out to vanquish 100 demons and earn his place among the highest Immortals.
The writing team of Rita Hsiao (Mulan, Toy Story 2), and Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman (Open Season, Brother Bear) sets effective stakes early on, but then struggles to give the tale an emotional anchor. We never really care that Monkey King is not being accepted because he doesn’t seem interested in earning it, even tossing aside the help of the earnest Lin (Jolie Haong-Rappaport), a wannabe assistant who he feels is beneath him.
Director Anthony Stacchi (Open Season, The Boxtrolls) gives the film an often frantic pace that doesn’t leave much room to breath. And when an action sequence or punch line does land, we’re quickly off to the next distraction, which is especially distracting when it’s an awkward musical number for the Dragon King that you’d swear was an A.I. re-working of The Little Mermaid’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
There are pluses, including a wonderful voice cast, a vibrant, culturally rich animation pastiche and winking nods to the work of executive producer Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer). But disjointed character arcs and muddled motivations keep the film from crafting a coherent journey. and The Monkey King can never quite escape the chaos.