With some structural flaws in the narrative, The Monkey King tells an action-packed tale of self-acceptance.
“Even a tiny pebble can make a big riffle,” says one of the characters in The Monkey King towards the beginning of the movie. And if any sentence was to summarize this film, it would most definitely be this one. In a tale of self-acceptance told through comedy and action, director Anthony Stacchi creates an enjoyable film that quickly draws the audience into its fantasy world. The opening sequence immediately sets the scene with its solemn music (Toby Chu), a voice-of-God narrator that introduces us to the main concept, and impressive visuals.
As the name suggests, The Monkey King follows the titular Monkey King (Jimmy O. Yang) in his adventures. At the beginning, we witness Monkey’s birth from a rock, which immediately sets the comedic tone of the movie as well as establishing him as a powerful hero. After acquiring a magical fighting Stick (Nan Li), Monkey sets on an epic quest, determined to conquer at least 100 demons in order to become part of the Immortal Ones, where he believes he will finally belong. On his journey, he meets Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), a 13-year-old Chinese peasant girl who is determined to become Monkey’s assistant, and he attracts the wrath of the Dragon King (Bowen Yang), the ruler of the Seas.
What stood out to me the most in this film, which can be sometimes predictable in its plot, is its unique characters. The Monkey King is a very peculiar protagonist, more of an anti-hero than a traditional hero. With such a strong and often unlikeable protagonist, I would have liked to see a more compelling villain. Instead, the Dragon King often falls short at holding his own against our main characters, leaning too much into the comedy of the movie. But the most fascinating character in The Monkey King is Lin. The plot revolving around Lin, with her internal struggle, compassion and desperate need to make a difference, may very well be the film’s saving grace, setting it apart from the many others in its genre.
The Monkey King does feel a little too slow at times. Many of the action-packed sequences start to feel too repetitive after seeing the first couple, as they do little to move the plot forward, despite being very well-executed nonetheless. This is not the only narrative issue in this film, as I kept feeling like the main villain and the overall stakes of the plot were both missing in the first half of the film, which is exclusively focused on Monkey as he embarks on a series of successful quest, with no real obstacle yet. However, the plot picks up in the last act when we finally see Monkey face a powerful opponent as the spiritual elements come into play at the end of the movie.
Visually, The Monkey King is beautiful from its first shot until the very last. The animation style is as unique as it is impressive. Inspired by the tradition of Chinese brush painting, the animation style wants to honour the textures of brush painting and ink on paper, thus remaining authentic to the inspiration behind the movie, rooted in Chinese literature. There is very clear attention to detail in the animation which brings this story to life before our eyes. This is particularly successful in the film’s depiction of many different environments, as it manages to portray the realms of Earth, the undersea world, the Jade Heaven, and Chinese Hell visually in very different ways.
Overall, while it may be slow to pick up initially, The Monkey King is still an enjoyable movie with compelling characters and a message that may have been told over and over multiple times in this type of film, but that remains important to share nonetheless. Ultimately, the narrative has some structural flaws and it may be a little predictable, but the beautiful animation and upbeat soundtrack make it a film that children and viewers who love animations can still appreciate.
The Monkey King will be released on Netflix on August 18, 2023.