Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Monkey King (2014)


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?

Good Points:
  • 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

Bad Points:
  • 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)
Visuals: 2
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 5
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Surprised and delighted by his antics?
This movie is not the train wreck I expecting. But it isn’t all that great either. If you approach it with the right expectations you will probably have a good time with it. While watching The Monkey King I wondered why the hell this wasn’t turned into an animated series with a big budget. All the issues I have with the film could be solved with dropping the live action and giving the characters more room to breathe. Journey to the West is a wonderful mythical story and you can do so much with it. I know a lot of time and money was spent on this movie, I can see why people were expecting more.

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.
Actually this film reminds me of the Star Wars prequels. I know, I know, that doesn’t inspire much confidence either. But both stories had huge scope to them, and required massive amounts of green screen and CG effects to bring the tales to life. Both films focused on a main character who isn’t terribly likable, but rises and falls as the story progresses. We see this character being twisted by his enemies using his love against him. In the end, both tales hint at redemption and hope in some way. So really The Monkey King is the prequel to the true tale of Journey to the West where Sun Wukong travels on a journey of enlightenment.

I don't care who you are, I'm not listening to anyone
wearing that hat.
But to be enlightened, you have to start off as an unenlightened jerk, and so we have the main story told in this film. Looking at it that way, you understand why Donnie Yen plays Wukong the way he does. You have to have a way for the character to progress and since this is a planned trilogy of films, it makes sense that we see Wukong at his most childish and self-centered in The Monkey King. Yen gives an animated performance, mixing in monkey-like gestures, movement and expressions with a childlike exuberance. I can see how some folks are going to find his performance to be too over the top, but I think it actually fit this character. Wukong is governed by his emotions, and to have them so bombastic allows us to see how powerful they really are. It is because he loves so deeply that he turns so harshly against the Jade Emperor. Yes, the makeup does come across as creepy at times especially combined with the enthusiastic performance, and it is something that ends up distracting the viewer.

Putting the KONG back in Sun Wukong
But if we only had the performance to worry about than I wouldn’t have scored this all that low. Unfortunately we also have to deal with the scenes involving 90% green screen work. The story about wars in heaven is going to demand a massive amount of visual effects. Sadly the sheer volume of effects required obviously impacted the final look. Much of what you end up seeing lacks detail. Accurate shadows and light are missing, and it gives everything a very video gamey look. But I’m not talking about modern video games. There are scenes that look like cutscenes from Playstation 2 era of graphics. If the whole film had this visual look, it might have been acceptable.

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.
That is another gripe I see leveled at the film, and it is a legitimate one. You have some cast members, including Donnie Yen, who are excellent martial artists. And you pack the movie full of impossible over the top combat moments. This means you end up with battles of CG versions of Donnie Yen and Chow Yun Fat, when you know these guys could actually be doing real full-blown action scenes. It is really disappointing. Yen does get a couple of scenes to show his skills, but there is still plenty of CG involved and it really reduces the impact.

Is she about to run into the Big Bad Bull?
But let’s be honest here, the goal of The Monkey King isn’t martial arts action. It is to tell a fun adventure story pulled from a familiar mythic text. Here too the film doesn’t really succeed. The most developed character is Sun Wukong, which makes sense. But even he feels a bit flat. The movie spends a lot of time on his antics and silliness, but doesn’t really flesh him out too much. We get a sense that he wants to care for his monkey people, but the movie doesn’t take enough time to sell it. We end up getting a flashback to a silly scene that is heartwarming, but feels slapped in there. A little better is his relationship to Silver Fox. The cute scene they share watching the sunrise is nice, and we feel bad that she is basically duped by the Bull Demon King. She is more sympathetic than Wukong ever is.

At home with the Bull Demon family.
The movie also moves at breakneck speed, attempting to cram in all these moments and plot points. As a result there are some missing transitions. Suddenly characters are in different places, or a character appears and we weren’t even sure where they came from. I’m familiar with the story already, so I didn’t get too confused. But it did feel choppy and just unpolished in places. The movie is long, and you feel it because of all the plot crammed in there. That is the main reason I think The Monkey King should have gone with animated television series with big name Chinese voice actors instead. This movie could have easily been a single season.

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.

Looming alarmingly.
I also thought that Aaron Kwok did a really good job with the antagonist. Instead of making him a simple mustache twirling over the top villain he keeps the Bull Demon King cool. Seriously, this guy is calm, methodical and burning with hatred for the Jade Emperor, but it simmers down deep in the eyes. It is a nice contrast to Yen’s energy, and when the Bull turns into the calm advisor for Wukong Kwok’s performance makes it all work. The movie also gives him a little bit more to care about, in the form of his lover Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen). In the end I was actually cheering for the Bull Demon King to kick some ass by the end, and that is mostly based on Kwok’s charisma in the role.

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.
If there is any element you could compare to Lord of the Rings it would be Young’s score to The Monkey King. It has all the emotion and power and thrills you want. Young not only takes the fantasy playbook from Hollywood, but he combines it with Chinese instrumentation and style. The result is an amazing hybrid score that is clearly from Christopher Young, but also doesn’t sound like anything else he’s ever attempted. In the film, Young’s music ends up carrying some of the power, because the visuals end up falling so flat. Most of the time it is perfect combination, and you can tell Young had a blast with this score. A few times Yen’s enthusiastic performance combines with the big music and makes it a little bit too much. But I can forgive this a little bit since the music is so good. In the end Christopher Young ended up composing one of his best scores for The Monkey King, and that is saying something, because I have yet to come across a Young score I don’t like.

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!
It does remind me quite a bit of Sadko (also known as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad in the west), where the attempt to bring a well known mythic tale from one culture to the next turns it into a kaleidoscope of bizarre imagery, random story elements and overall bafflement from the audience. But really only from an audience that wasn’t the target of the original. Sadko may feel like jaw dropping insanity in its heavily edited and poorly dubbed form, but it was an award winning film in Europe and Russia. The Monkey King didn’t suffer the indignity of a chopped up and dubbed North American release, so that is a good thing. And to be honest while the film a mega-hit in China, there was still disappointment about the final result.

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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  1. Stories based on unfamiliar mythologies always face extra hurdles. They don't have the nostalgia factor working for them and they may assume the audience knows things (character traits, for instance) it doesn't. The hurdles aren't insurmountable though, and novelty can be an asset too. Thanks for dipping a toe (or rather a whole foot) in the waters, and let us know how well the trilogy plays out.

    1. Yeah it is interesting how we are so used to our mythologies that we don't see anything strange about them. But if you've ever tried to explain a Grimms fairy tale to someone not raised in Western culture you get a pretty good perspective on how strange they really are.