Back in the early ’90s, a New Jersey-based company called GoodTimes Entertainment carved out a place for itself in the home-video space churning out straight-to-video knockoffs of Disney animated features. While “The Lion King” was in theaters, there was GoodTimes’ “Leo the Lion: King of the Jungle” on retail shelves, packaged (for maximum mix-uppability) in Disney’s signature white clamshell case. From a copyright perspective, GoodTimes’ strategy was super-sketchy, but as far as parents were concerned, it was easy to get confused — and most kids probably didn’t know the difference.
That bait-and-switch phenomenon crossed my mind when I saw that Netflix was making “The Monkey King,” which — like GoodTimes’ “Aladdin” or “The Little Mermaid” — was certainly fair game, since the source material (the 16th-century Chinese classic “Journey to the West”) was squarely in the public domain. The cynical part of my brain instantly imagined that the streamer was churning out some bait-and-switch cheapie designed to confuse kids looking for “Monkey King: Hero Is Back,” the entertaining 2015 toon (featuring Jackie Chan in its English-language dub) that set Chinese box office records when it came out.
Come to find, “The Monkey King” is a decent-looking, standalone adaptation of the popular Chinese epic, in development at Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental DreamWorks) since at least 2015. Exec produced by Steven Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) and directed by Anthony Stacchi (“The Box Trolls”), it’s an overstuffed, manically paced riff on a legendary Chinese character versatile enough to withstand multiple treatments — and good thing, too, since there’s also the CG-heavy live-action franchise, featuring Donnie Yen, and countless other stage and screen retellings of “Journey to the West.”
This version’s a lot more satisfying if you already know the Monkey King character and the broad arc of his story: Hatched from a stone egg, the ambitious simian (disappointingly voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) is destined to be great — and also grating, rubbing the gods the wrong way from the get-go. Buddha warns the wary immortals to leave Monkey alone and “let him find his way,” but the boastful creature is so self-centered, he annoys practically everyone he comes in contact with, including the would-be sidekick he calls “Pebble” (as in, that’s how significant the cocky hero considers her).
Early on, Monkey tries to make nice with a colony of plain old primates by learning kung fu and defeating the demon that’s been terrorizing them. He steals Stick — Monkey King’s signature weapon and the source of much of his power — making an enemy of the underwater Dragon King (Bowen Yang) in the process, and resolves to vanquish 100 demons. He desperately wants to get the heavens’ attention and hopes that will do the trick, but the logic doesn’t quite track. The script seems to be racing past the good parts as it compresses 90-odd showdowns into a brush-painted, heavy-metal montage (a nice break from the rest of the movie’s more conventional CG aesthetic).
Generally speaking, “The Monkey King” looks good enough — far better than the 2015 movie, but no match for more recent Chinese blockbusters, such as “Nezha” or “Deep Sea” (over the past decade, the Sino animation industry has surpassed even Pixar in its capacity to deliver astonishing visuals). “The Monkey King” may have originated at Pearl Studio, but once Stacchi came aboard, it shifted to North America-based Reel FX (“The Wild”). Character designs leave something to be desired, with not nearly enough attention paid to properly rigging Monkey, who’s tall and lanky, with flame red hair and a tomahawk-shaped spike cresting over his coconut head. He can do kung fu, but his face isn’t nearly expressive enough, especially around the mouth (it doesn’t help that Yang’s vocal performance lacks in personality and comic timing).
Impulsive and reckless, Monkey can be a challenging character to like. Screenwriters Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman and Rita Hsiao offer some creative twists on his well-documented feats, including an audacious trip to the underworld in which Monkey aims to find his scroll and cross off his name (immortality is one of his recurring obsessions). The climactic duel between a power-hungry villain (in this case, the Dragon King) and the equally power-hungry Monkey breaks from the usual formula, since our antihero doesn’t stop at vanquishing his adversary, but goes right on growing, until even the gods get nervous.
Chinese audiences know how that turns out, as Buddha is forced to intervene. The movie sticks to legend there, but doesn’t seem to understand it. If Monkey’s punishment is to be imprisoned for 500 years, then maybe don’t skip past half a millennium in a matter of seconds to find him relatively unchanged on the other end. Netflix wants to establish a franchise, so this story ends where “Monkey King: Hero Is Back” began. Rather than serving as the GoodTimes version of that movie, it functions as more of a prequel, with further adventures sure to come.