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The Monkey King review – lively Netflix animation revives ancient Chinese classic

Despite recent budget cuts, Netflix’s in-house animation division continues to produce lively, interesting works that, if released theatrically, might be diverting some of the applause that gets automatically lavished on Disney and Pixar’s currently mediocre output. Not that this is anywhere as rich and strange as the streaming service’s last big title, the Oscar-winning Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. The latest in a 10,000-mile-long line of adaptations of Journey to the West, the 16th-century Chinese novel attributed to Wu Cheng’en, bounces along energetically, and has some exceptionally fun frills around the edges, such as a flouncy vocal performance from Bowen Yang as spiteful, effete baddie the Dragon King, who gets to sing the film’s best musical number. (Vowing to flood the world as revenge for being mocked for his dry skin condition that can only be treated with an amphibian lifestyle, he sings: “Since then I’ve realised there’s nothing wrong with being moisturised.” Surely this is a metrosexual anthem in the making.)

Sadly, the Dragon King only gets wheeled in sporadically, as the lead protagonist is the considerably less endearing Monkey (Jimmy O Yang). A cocksure braggart who was born from a rock and is afflicted with an acute narcissistic personality disorder, Monkey steals the Dragon King’s all-powerful multi-use Stick – whose voice sounds like a didgeridoo and is a bit like a magical Swiss army knife – which he uses on a quest to obtain immortality. Some of the adventures – peach stealing, meeting the omnipotent Buddha – will be familiar to those who remember the wonderful late-1970s Japanese live-action TV series Monkey that the BBC used to screen. (This was the show that really popularised Journey to the West beyond Asia, while also entertaining stoners worldwide who chanced on it while channel-surfing late at night.)

This iteration of Journey has dispensed with Monkey’s usual cohort – monk Tripitaka, sea monster Sandy and bipedal pig Pigsy – and instead gives him a Doctor Who-style “assistant”. This is Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), who is secretly working for the Dragon King in order to save her village from a drought, and who gets to be the smarter-than-the-hero female character that no animation these days can do without. Her story is a bit underwritten compared to Monkey, but at least she’s better designed: she gets a fetching widow’s peak in her hair and smattering of humanising freckles, while Monkey looks like an AI-designed mishap, part simian, part Fonzie from Happy Days with a swirl of sideburns and hair.

  • The Monkey King is released on 18 August on Netflix.