The heart of the problem is The Monkey King makes its central character, whose story has been told and retold for hundreds of years, uninteresting.
Editor’s note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
In this particularly exciting time for animation, when movies like the Spider-Verse series, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and TMNT: Mutant Mayhem seem to herald a new wave of Hollywood studio creativity, it is much more noticeable when an animated film is sub-par. Critics have a history of sitting through underwhelming family fare and shrugging, noting that kids will probably be entertained by the whooshing colors. I am not inclined to grade on that curve, and Netflix’s The Monkey King, a new movie based on the enduring character from Chinese literature, doesn’t clear the bar. Visual creativity and humor are present in flashes, but whatever there is to recommend it is weighed down by a poor script that never finds the story’s dramatic center. Once it loses its way, about 15 minutes into the runtime, it never really hooks us again.
Directed by Anthony Stacchi and set in China during a time in which people shared the world with mythological beings, The Monkey King begins as the titular character (Jimmy O. Yang) is mysteriously born from a rock on top of a mountain. In a universe that thrives on cosmic order, overseen by the Immortals in Heaven, the little monkey is right away a sign of trouble, and the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee) wishes to do away with him. But Buddha (BD Wong), who stands above all things, intervenes – the creature is powerful, he says, and has a great destiny ahead of him. After facing rejection from a troop of monkeys instills in him a need to prove himself, that destiny sets him on the path to becoming one of the most fearsome warriors on Earth, in hopes of winning a place among the Immortal Ones.