(2021) Animated Feature (Well Go USA) Starring the voices of Bian Jiang, Cai Haiting, Su Shangqing, Lin Qiang, Zhang He, Zhang Lei, Qiang Lin, Wang Chenguang, Song Ming, Feng Sheng, Zhang Yaohan, Bai Xuecen, Qiu Qiu, He Zhang, Zhongyang Baomu, Tu-Te-Ha-Meng. Directed by Yunfei Wang
One of the iconic characters in Chinese folklore is that of the Monkey King, a.k.a. Sun Wukong (Jiang). Best-known for his appearance in the 16th century novel Journey to the West (although the character is based on an amalgam of far older myths and legends), he is a trickster prone to quick anger and powerful. Taking offense easily, he is a disciple of the Taoist monk Tang Sanzang (Shangqing).
While on a journey, Sanzang, and Wukong along with the Monkey King’s fellow disciples the pig-like Zhu Baije (He) and the monstrous Sha Wujing (Qiang) come to a shrine where the magic Tree of Life is tended to. The perpetually hungry Baije prevails upon Wukong to steal some fruit from the tree, which he does. The obnoxious caretakers not only blame Wukong for his theft, but also for the theft of fruit which the caretakers themselves stole. This sends Wukong into a mindless rage and in his fury, he destroys the tree.
That proves to be a really bad idea. The tree was the seal keeping the Demon King Yuandi (Lei) imprisoned. Freed, he kidnaps the pious Sanzang and will in three days regain his full power, at which time he will destroy the monk. Wukong, recognizing his complicity in the matter, goes on a quest to rescue his mentor, aided by his two fellow disciples and Fruity (Haiting), a cute-as-a-button gi spirit that sprang up out of the tree and which Wukong initially mistook for a fruit spirit. But the way is long and dangerous, and the foes powerful, particularly the Demon King who even the powerful Wukong may not be able to defeat.
While the movie utilizes elements of the 100 chapter-long Journey to the West, this is a fresh take on the subject, although how fresh can it be considering that in Asia there are over seventeen thousand versions of the Monkey King’s story (which is about how many MCU movies there are, right?). The story is a pretty simple one, although Western audiences might find the Buddhist and Taoist philosophies espoused in the movie to be different and refreshing.
The animation is the star here, with some absolutely beautiful landscapes and a good deal of detail which is lovingly rendered. The battle sequences are absolutely spectacular, particularly the climactic battle between the Demon King and Wukong. Animation fans, particularly those of Asian animation, are going to love this.
Cinema buffs looking for something refined will probably not love this quite as much. The plot is simplistic and the dialogue often redundant. Those with minimal knowledge of the Monkey King’s background will probably find themselves somewhat lost, although children may well not find that to be much of a problem. However, parents should be warned that the fight scenes can be brutal and bloody, and there is a lot of swearing (Wukong is often referred to as “that shitty monkey” by various characters throughout the film) and although it’s not implicitly stated, the film really isn’t appropriate for younger children. It seems to be aimed more at teens and adults, although the made-to-be-a-mascot Fruity seems to be there to appeal to younger audiences. While it might feel like they didn’t have a handle on what kind of audience they were directing the film towards, one has to allow for the cultural differences as way of explanation.
This is a gorgeous film to look at, but the paper-thin plot and sometimes unnecessary dialogue might put some off. My advice is just to watch it and get into the moment, rather than think about things too hard. It’s a movie meant to be experienced rather than analyzed.
By-the-by, the movie is available in two forms – subtitled, and dubbed into English. I saw the subtitled version and the vocal performances are a bit over-the-top, as they tend to be in that part of the world; if you have a preference, be sure that the version you are getting is the one you want. Most of the streaming services carry only the dubbed version.
REASONS TO SEE: The animation is lush and richly detailed.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too childish for adults and too extreme for kids.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the third in a series of animated features released by Well Go and based on Chinese folk tales and myths under the umbrella Fengshen Cinematic Universe. This film is unrelated to the first two, Ne Zha (2019) and Jiang Ziya (2020).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Monkey King: Hero is Back
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Novice