Review by Cole Groth
Netflix’s latest animation, The Monkey King, is frankly pretty forgettable. From the opening frame, any expectations I had going into it were smoothed out, as the cheap-looking animation is immediately present. A by-the-numbers fantasy story keeps this from feeling like anything special, but it’s at least fun enough while watching to leave a positive, if faint, impression.
With an all-star Asian cast featuring the voices of Jimmy O. Yang, Bowen Yang, Jo Kay, BD Wong, and Stephanie Hsu, The Monkey King tells the story of a super-powered monkey trying to climb his way up to status as an Immortal. Unfortunately for him, an evil water dragon seeks to thwart his quest, forcing the monkey to overcome his weaknesses on an epic adventure. Clearly, this plot isn’t anything special. If you’ve seen one of these fantasy/adventure movies, you’ll be well aware of all the beats here. Thankfully, like those movies, this one is satisfying. It’s hard to not have fun as the story progresses, and it’s clear that this will succeed with families.
The Monkey King’s biggest weakness is easily its animation. There’s something unsettling about the smooth skin of every character and the intense elasticity of their animations. There’s a sequence where the animation shifts from 3D to 2D, and it almost feels like it shouldn’t have been included because it shows what we could’ve gotten: style. The studio behind this, Pearl Studio, is responsible for a string of well-received animated movies, including Kung Fu Panda 3, Abominable, and Over the Moon. Still, this lacks any defined vision and will struggle to stand out among other outsourced animated films.
Looking past the technical elements, there are tons of hilarious moments that children will enjoy. Jimmy O. Yang and Bowen Yang bring a lot to their performances and use their comedic talents to give their characters life. Jolie Jiang-Rappaport’s performance as Lin is pretty remarkable as a debut voice-acting performance as well. Her character of Lin gives a lot of necessary balance to a story that would otherwise feel completely one note. The script is pretty funny, and it all moves at a fast enough pace to keep this from feeling like a slog.
Netflix has to shovel content out to the masses, and with their style being more focused on quantity over quality, stuff like The Monkey King ends up rising to the top. That’s not a great thing. Films like these are missing a spark and beg to have a true purpose. This has the workings of a decent movie, bar the cheap animation, but it doesn’t feel like it has any central vision, moving along at a series of pre-defined beats without a true reason to exist.
For each serious criticism I have for The Monkey King, there are a few minor positives. While the individual pieces that make this up are a mixed bag on their own, this is certainly good more often than it’s bad. At worst, it’s inoffensive, poorly-animated, and quick. At best, it’s a fun time with good jokes, solid voice acting, and a great pace. This won’t stand out as the best of the year, but if Netflix needs to churn out dozens of films a year, at least films like these aren’t awful.
The Monkey King releases on Netflix on August 18.