‘The Monkey King:’ Wrenching the Zen of the Gods

How loose is Anthony Stacchi’s brash retelling of the adventures of Sun Wukong, the famed Monkey King from the 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West”? I’ll give you an example: The monkey’s powerful staff, a weapon called the Ruyi Jingu Bang, has, through the years, been referred to as the Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod and the As-You-Will-Gold-Banded Cudgel. Here, it’s called Stickipoo — and if its robotic squawks and light-saber glow appear on loan from George Lucas, that’s only fair. “Star Wars” borrowed the Force from Daoism; now, this cacophonous kids cartoon asserts its lead as a foundational superhero.

We’re soon convinced. In the opening stretch, the Monkey King (Jimmy O. Yang) hatches from a rock, glares his red laser eyes at the heavens, and declares that he’ll command the gods’ attention by defeating 100 baddies — which he does, to the wail of a jokey heavy metal soundtrack. (“Who has demons screaming when he knocks on their door? Monkey King!” the lyrics screech.) Pompous, status-seeking and dismissive of those he deems inferior — i.e., everyone — the braggart is fated to learn patience at the hands of Buddha (BD Wong), a titanic figure lit to glow from within, like a salt lamp. But this twitchy flick doesn’t have much time for inner peace. There are too many rivals to mock, punch and threaten to urinate on (a taunt that occurs in the original text).

The script by Ron J. Friedman, Stephen Bencich and Rita Hsiao throws every possible joke at the audience. Midway through a battle in Hell — yes, Hell — its ruler, Yama (Andrew Kishino), even pauses to face our direction and paint his stamp of doom on the screen. The visuals are so frenetic that they can seem thoughtless. One needs Zen-like focus to appreciate the animators’ skillful use of angles and space. The rare moments in which an image pauses to catch its breath can be stunning, such as a shot of an endless expanse of flaming lanterns dangling over countless white ghosts — how artist Yayoi Kusama might have designed the afterlife.

There are enough gags that a dozen land. (I chuckled when a shortsighted sage, voiced by James Sie, tries to shoo off the rebellious monkey by dramatically intoning, “Coconut him.”) As for the immortals, half speak like teenagers huffing paint behind the mall, and all but Buddha are egomaniacs maintaining a cosmic hierarchy where the gods delight in 10-foot-tall egg tart sculptures of themselves while earthlings are humbled into insignificance. Stacchi’s take on the divine is catty, teetering on camp — it almost seems inspired by the drag star Divine, particularly when the Dragon King (Bowen Yang) saunters out of his bathtub palanquin moistening his fur so his skin doesn’t flake.

The one exception is a new character: a village girl named Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), who is the only sensible figure in the film. If this empathetic hero was the lead in any other movie, I’d find her a bit too bland. Here, she cuts nicely through the noise.


‘The Monkey King’ Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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