When I wrote my review of Jack Frost for this blog I came to the realization that movies about folklore and myth don’t always translate well to other countries. In the case of Jack Frost much of that film feels goofy, chaotic and over the top. So when I heard the reception of North American film fans to the movie based off the Chinese legend called Journey to the West, I figured it was the same deal. But then I saw some screen captures of Donnie Yen in his makeup and I was disturbed but intrigued. I had to find out if The Monkey King was as scary looking as those pics hinted.
Ok folks, strap in, because a lot of stuff happens in this movie and it is hard to condense down. The movie kicks off with a battle between the forces of heaven and hell! The Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) leads the heavenly host against the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok). Much of heaven is bashed up and destroyed in the process, but the Jade Emperor is able to overcome the forces of darkness and he banishes them to a fiery hell mountain. The Goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) transforms her body into crystals that magically restore heaven, but she ceases to exist.
One of the magical crystals crashes into Mount Huaguo. From the crystal emerges a monkey imbued with all the power of an immortal. He is trained in martial arts and magic and soon declares himself The Monkey King. But Sun Wukong is a monkey with a lot of attitude and soon he begins messing up earth and heaven in his efforts to make himself more powerful. Wukong does all these things to help his fellow monkeys and the pretty silver fox, Ruxue (Xia Zitong). But the Bull Demon King figures out that he can use Wukong’s power to breach the gates of heaven and take another stab at destroying the Jade Emperor. So he uses flattery and deceit to corrupt Wukong. This leads to another epic battle between heaven and hell. But does the Jade Emperor have any hope against the power of The Monkey King?
- Donnie Yen captures the mercurial character of Sun Wukong
- Aaron Kwok gives the Bull Demon King a bit of gravitas
- Christopher Young’s score is one of his best
- The visuals do not mesh and are very distracting
- So much going on in this story that the characters suffer
- Missing some transitions so those not familiar with the story may find it confusing
When you have source material this colorful and exciting it can be hard to know where and how to approach it. This movie doesn’t pull it off very well. Visually it clashes with itself and you end up focusing on the oddness of the whole thing and ignoring the story and characters. Sadly the characters are thin archetypes and not given too much time to be fleshed out. Some solid performances and a wonderful fantasy score by Christopher Young help carry the movie along. In the end it overstays its welcome, but remains entertaining – if the makeup for Sun Wukong doesn’t give you nightmares.
Scores (out of 5)
In Depth Review
|Surprised and delighted by his antics?|
The thing is Journey to the West has been adapted many, many times over the years. There have been direct adaptations for television, animation and video games. Some are from China, but I’ve seen just as many from Japan. Heck one of the most popular anime series of the 1990s, Dragonball Z takes inspiration from Journey to the West. Sun Wukong is a character that resonates through much of Asian culture in one form or the other.
This is why I think that all hype I saw comparing The Monkey King to Lord of the Rings actually did more harm than good. The Lord of the Rings films grounded themselves in a reality. They had dirt and grime in them. They felt tied to our reality in a way that The Monkey King is not interested in tackling. If you go in expecting to see something like Lord of the Rings or god forbid Game of Thrones you are going to be deeply disappointed in The Monkey King.
|I hope this goes better than it did with The Bride.|
|I don't care who you are, I'm not listening to anyone|
wearing that hat.
|Putting the KONG back in Sun Wukong|
Unfortunately there are some really solid sets used in the film, like Mount Huaguo. You also have the detailed costumes that nearly every character is wearing. Suddenly these purely CG backgrounds and effects look even more dated and less convincing. There are also plenty of scenes where characters are performing impossible feats, and everything on the screen is animated. Once again you feel like you are playing a video game of The Monkey King and not watching a film featuring some of China’s finest actors.
|Yes, I am very fabulous.|
|Is she about to run into the Big Bad Bull?|
|At home with the Bull Demon family.|
I did like a few things about the film. Visually it is bright colorful and unashamed of just going for full-blown spectacle time and again. I admire that (even if it never really pulls it off). It is nice to see a fantasy film delving into a full fantasy look and eschewing the gritty dirty look that Lord of the Rings initiated and has plagued fantasy films, games and television series in Hollywood ever since. This movie looks like it could be a visual adaptation of an anime at times. It isn’t as effective as Speed Racer, but it gets points for committing to the look.
Just as entertaining is the score by Christopher Young. Young is best known for his wonderful work in horror film scoring. But let me tell you, this man is versatile and can compose powerful music for dramas, jazzy snazzy music for spy parodies, and hard hitting action music. For years I’d hoped that Young would get the chance to score an epic fantasy or science fiction adventure. Finally he gets the chance with The Monkey King. Not only was this a full-blown fantasy film, but the creators wanted the music to be big and powerful. With Hollywood trending for lower key and moody music of late, Young jumped at the opportunity to craft his own multi-thematic fantasy adventure score.
|Don't tell them that foxes and monkeys can't fly.|
The Monkey King’s production didn’t go smoothly, and there were some casting changes and other issues along the way. I get the feeling that this impacted the final product (just like it did in Rogue One). The film is plot heavy and rushes along so fast that you never connect with the characters. I’m sure someone familiar with the story can fill in the blanks, but for viewers new to the saga it can feel disjointed and messy.
|I'm in charge dammit. Look at this hat!|
I enjoyed watching The Monkey King. Yeah it has some bizarre and sometimes disturbing visuals because of the makeup and enthusiasm of Donnie Yen’s acting. Yeah some of the large scale moments clash with their CG and live action elements, and create some unintentionally funny visuals. But I like the tale being told. I liked the character of Sun Wukong and his journey is one worth watching. I loved the enthusiasm of the whole endeavor. The move is going for big flashy fun, and it succeeds quite often. I’m glad I watched it and got to experience Christopher Young’s score in context (because being a film score nerd, that was the main reason I had this in my Netflix cue).
That said, The Monkey King is only the set up for the true Journey to the West. In 2016 that journey started with The Monkey King 2 and word is that film makes some needed improvements that give it quite a boost. I’m looking forward to watching that one next.
|Peering into the future of The Monkey King 2?|
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