The Monkey King review: colourful Netflix animation

Monkey King (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) in Netflix's The Monkey King.
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Netflix’s animation division is still responsible for the streamer’s more interesting output, but The Monkey King can be simplistic.

The character of the Monkey King is one that’s well known in Chinese folklore. Director Anthony Stacchi’s adaptation for Netflix takes the original tale – told in the 16th century book Journey To The West – and creates an action-packed, colourful movie for kids.

Monkey King (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) is no ordinary monkey. He hatches out of a geode-like rock with the power to shoot lasers out of his eyes – so he quickly learns that he doesn’t belong with others of his kind. The lack of acceptance by others leads him to be fiercely competitive, attempting to win people’s affection by committing great heroic deeds. With his only friend being a sentient stick that he uses as a weapon, Monkey King sets out first to defeat 100 demons, then to gain immortality and join the other immortals that live in heaven.

Yang’s main character is often incredibly irritating, but that’s the nature of the story. It’s essentially a fable, teaching the dangers of individualism when it’s taken too far. The downside to that is that it prevents the movie from doing much in terms of character development. Monkey King remains very much the same throughout, with any kind of growth only happening at the very end of the film.

The Monkey King

His journey, though, is a fun one. The environments he explores are rich and colourful, and The Monkey King is always moving at quite a pace. He and his sidekick Lin (Jolie Haong-Rappaport) end up in various exciting places and get into a lot of fights. The set pieces come along frequently, and they include some well choreographed and fun martial arts.

The sad thing, though, is that a retelling of such a famous tale hasn’t pushed the boat out more. We’re in a golden age of animation at the moment, with the likes of Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem experimenting visually with the medium and treating it as more than just a medium used for children’s films. The Monkey King takes few risks, both with its animation style and its storytelling. Most animated films are still made with a family audience in mind, but this is one that feels very specifically geared towards small children, with little included to engage a broader audience.

In short, this is a perfectly good choice if your kids are bored and you want to stick them in front of the telly for an hour and a half. It’s fun, it’s colourful, and there’s plenty of action involved. It’s just a shame that it’s not particularly memorable.

The Monkey King is streaming on Netflix.

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