Film Review – The Monkey King

The Monkey King

The Monkey King

If Netflix really wanted to, they could place themselves firmly as one of the top producers of animated films. Not beholden to the kind of narrative restrictions of say, Disney/Pixar, the streaming giant has released some of the most interesting animation of recent memory. Klaus (2019), The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021), My Father’s Dragon (2022), The Sea Beast (2022), Entergalactic (2022), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022), and Nimona (2023) are just a few of the good to great animated work coming out of the company. Say what you will about their questionable business decisions (which are valid, by the way), but it’s hard to argue that Netflix’s animation branch isn’t quietly building its own reputation.  

I say all this as a way to highlight my disappointment over The Monkey King (2023). Based on the legendary character Sun Wukong from the 16th century Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” this adaptation takes a very specific story and adapts it into a bland Hero’s Tale. The result is a movie reconfigured for kids with short attention spans. It fills the screen with bright flashing lights, fast paced action, and – for some reason – heavy metal music. Whatever lessons there are gets buried under a heap of mild entertainment. Films that simply occupy two hours is not necessarily a bad thing. However, when you have source material this rich in history and mythology, settling for “passable” is a wasted opportunity.  


It doesn’t help that nearly all of the characters aren’t very likable. Whether good or bad, everybody we meet has their own agendas. Director Anthony Stacchi (with screenwriters Steve BencichRon J. Friedman, and Rita Hsiao) build character dynamics as a series of self-centered actions. Even when the motivations are sincere (such as saving loved ones), it comes at the cost of betraying others. No example is more obvious that the Monkey King himself (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang). Obsessed with defeating 100 demons with his magical stick (Nan Li) and gaining immortality, the Monkey King treats everyone around him as lower life forms. He is obnoxiously condescending to others, especially Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), a village girl who assists him with defeating the demons.

It’s one thing for a character to be arrogant and gradually learn to become a better person, but in this case the narrative does not do a good job of tracing that arc. The Monkey King is meant to be our protagonist, but he is hard to root for when his selfish attitude is incessantly abrasive. As much as Jimmy O. Yang tries to give the character dimension through his vocal performance, the material does not help him out. At a certain point, I stopped caring whether the Monkey King accomplishes his goal. In fact, I became more interested in the villain, the Dragon King (Bowen Yang). His colorful visual design, flamboyant personality traits, and Bowen Yang’s enthusiastic performance makes the Dragon King – at the very least – interesting to watch.

In the middle of it all is Lin, whom we suspect is the emotional center but ends up being more complicated than that. In fact, the character is an oddity. She’s meant to bring balance to the Monkey King, to show that even the smallest pebble can leave a lasting effect. But the messaging gets lost once she starts making questionable decisions. Much of Lin’s personality is brought on by the influence of others. This is due to Lin’s desire to protect her village, but the way the narrative juggles her personal story and her relationship to the Monkey King is clunky. Who is she to impart words of wisdom when she has her own learning and growing up to do? The third act has a strange tone in the way Lin and the Monkey King handle their adventures together. I just never bought Lin as a believable, fully dimensional person.


But let’s forget all the character stuff for a minute. Is the animation well rendered? Admittedly, there are some gorgeous sequences. The immortal realm is placed up in the clouds, where the sunshine casts a golden hue over everything. The conception of Buddha (BD Wong) as a massive, slow moving spiritual being is awe-inspiring. The Monkey King and Lin’s journey to defeat demons and stop the Dragon King takes them to – of all places – hell itself. Instead of a fiery underworld, this version of hell is a cavernous space of dark shadows. Unfortunately, the pacing is so hectic that we never get a chance to take in the visual details. The narrative is too eager to move on to the next scene or to dive into another action set piece.

The Monkey King is pure background fodder – the kind of stuff you watch on a flight or while doing the laundry. It’s as fluffy as cotton candy: It maybe enjoyable for a time but dissolves into nothingness soon after. The problem is that Netflix has given us such good animated films in the last few years that we all know they can do better than this.         




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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