The Monkey King is the latest adaption of the highly acclaimed 'Journey to the West' series of Chinese literature, and is possibly the most ambitious adaption of it as well. It's certainly one of the most star-studded adaptions of it. The Monkey King starts off in the midst of an all-out heavenly war with the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) defending heaven from the demons and the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok). As the Jade Emperor impressively defeats the Bull Demon King, he spares his life because of the pleading of his sister who loves the Demon King. But the damage dealt during the attack was so severe that the goddess Nu-Wa (Zilin Zhang) sacrifices her life to rebuilding and fortifying heaven from the demons for all time. However one of the shards of crystal that presumably contained the last remnants of her life-force that fell to Earth somehow gives birth to The Monkey King (Donnie Yen).
Upon learning of The Monkey King's existence, Master Puti (Yitian Hai) is given the arduous task of training the mischievious and arrogant but gifted Monkey King, or as he'll come to be known, Sun Wukong. It's a task that was given to Master Puti by the goddess of mercy Guanyin (Kelly Chen) and Master Puti successfully trains Sun Wukong in all areas of life, especially in the mystical and spiritual realms of martial arts. Far exceeding all of Master Puti's other pupils who consider themselves superior to Sun Wukong because of their more human, or divine appearance. Sun Wukong soon grows tired of heaven and he ventures back to the mountains of Huaguo where he was 'born' and becomes the leader of a tribe of monkeys. Sun Wukong seems content with this life, wanting to protect his brethren, that is until the banished Demon King begins manipulating The Monkey King to wage war against heaven.
I have to admit that there was some extremely stunning and grandiose visual ideas in The Monkey King, and they were even occasionally rendered and realized quite well. Bear in mind that the movie was supposed to look grand, fantastical and ethereal. While I have no doubt that The Monkey King was a visually challenging movie to make, I'm afraid most of it just didn't work. Conceptually, The Monkey King probably looked like it could be an amazingly visual representation of one of China's most revered myths, but the finished result was... less than stellar. It wasn't even 'bad' for the most part, it was outright horrendous. I'm talking like the mid 90s 'Spawn and The Mummy Returns' type cgi, and even then I think Spawn and The Mummy Returns has got it beat most of the time. There was a lot of those 'made for 3-d' moments that look ridiculously trashy outside of 3-d, and probably inside the 3-d screenings too.
The Monkey King had a strange visual dichotomy going on as well. In that barely a single scene had any sense of verisimilitude or authenticity to it whatsoever, you could almost see the green screen seeping through and all the staggeringly blatant cgi was virtually impossible to miss. But then when they did opt for practical effects, most notably for the other monkey's, I suddenly had all these terrible flashback's of Tim Burton's 'Planet of the Apes'. And that's how the monkey's behaved too, only with far less intelligence. Even Donnie Yen was way too over-exaggerated as Sun Wukong. I know that Sun Wukong was a monkey, but he was also very smart and devious. Donnie Yen played him too dumb I thought and he quickly became irritating. And when you have three top martial artists in your movie, at the very least make sure that there are some decent fights in the movie, but there were none. Even an enraged Monkey King vs The Four Heavenly Kings and the 100,000 strong army of celestial warriors was mostly a bore I'm genuinely surprised to say. In fact, The Monkey King's entire 'beef' with Buddha is never even touched on in this movie.
Journey to the West is such a treasured piece of Chinese literature because it encapsulates so many lines of thought that permeate many aspects of Eastern religions to this day, morality, spirituality, ethics, philosophy, etc. My knowledge of Sun Wukong and the Journey to the West is admittedly limited, but I could see that they adhered to the literature in many places, surprisingly, but it never felt honest or cohesive in its presentation. Which falls back on the simplistic script and fractured storytelling that reduces everyone down to cliched 'one-liner' characters and scenes that are just strung together with little, to no meaning. And while there are some points from the books that were in the movie, they were either out of sequential order or missed the point of the scenes and the characters. The 'butcher job' they did to Erlang (Peter Ho) was particularly terrible and giving The Monkey King a love interest is not a good idea. One of the core philosophies of Journey to the West was the hubris of The Monkey King. The being who had the powers to challenge heaven itself, and did, but eventually realized that it was all for naught at the end of the day. This led to The Monkey King gaining spiritual enlightenment and earning the name of 'Victorious Fighting Buddha', but it took him a long, long, long time to get to that point. The Monkey King wouldn't have accepted his fate after his attack on heaven and Buddha either.
Considering this movie was about Sun Wukong aka The Monkey King specifically, they didn't really get him right at all. At least I didn't think so. The closest anyone has come to getting him right, at least as far as I've seen is in 'Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons', where's he's truly a mean and treacherous little bastard, one that had to be constantly controlled because he was immensely dangerous if he was left to his own devices. Funnily enough, this movie tells the story of how Sun Wukong was banished from heaven and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons picks up with the monk releasing The Monkey King. So hypothetically speaking, 'The Monkey King' could be considered as a prequel to 'Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons'. But tonally, they're polar opposites to each other, as is each version of The Monkey King. I think it's pretty obvious that they were going for a more child friendly and sympathetic interpretation of The Monkey King here. But no matter what their intention was, despite a couple of cool moments here and there, I think their ambition far... far exceeded their abilities to tell this story the way they had hoped to. I sincerely hope that The Monkey King 2 is a drastic step up from this effort, but at the moment I'm more looking forward to Journey to the West 2 from Stephen Chow than I am a sequel for this. I'd love to see Stephen Chow retell this particular story actually. It's such a fantastic story that it deserves a better treatment than it's gotten here.
Written by - The Sentry - 23/09/2016