The Monkey King (2023) Movie Review – An earnest attempt that fails to impress

An earnest attempt that fails to impress

The Monkey King (2023) tries to introduce a beloved Chinese classic to Western audiences. It is earnest in its ambition but ultimately fails to grab attention. While there is plenty of adventure and visual attraction, the animated Netflix film is too focused on a plot that rushes and crams too much into the span of an hour and a half.

The story revolves around the life of a red-furred monkey born from a rock, a creature ostracized by his fellow monkeys. He strives for acceptance but doesn’t find it even when he defeats a demon. He then raises his ambitions and vows to join the Immortal Ones. His quest, however, proves to be an arduous one where he is accompanied by a girl named Lin.  

The Netflix movie’s intentions are commendable as it attempts to bridge cultures through a tale that holds historical significance. Unfortunately, the narrative’s weightiness becomes its Achilles’ heel. The plot hurtles forward with breakneck speed, scarcely allowing the audience to digest the unfolding events. Characters come and go in rapid succession, and the story rarely pauses for contemplation.

It does try to explore several themes. The Monkey King looks at family and community — Monkey King’s entire journey is essentially a reaction to not being able to fit in. We see him flout rules and order (the same ones that rendered him sans family) and instead, propagate chaos. So much of what he does stems from his loneliness.

But in the end, the 2023 version gets too caught up in things like magical orchards and elixirs of immortality and loses sight of these themes. As a result, there isn’t as much depth as there could have been. Inevitably, this also leads to a lack of focus on character. Monkey King is established early on as arrogant and ambitious, with an inner sense of loneliness.

The story seems to follow this misguided hero of sorts and guide him onto a better path. But we don’t really see any of this development or growth of personality. When it does happen, it happens off-screen. For the rest of the run time, he straddles the line between overconfident and annoying and sometimes, really tests your limits. The same fate befalls Lin, whose potential as a character remains largely untapped.

One of the movie’s strengths is its visual appeal. Each location is rendered with a burst of colour and creativity. Monkey King’s sentient weapon, Stick, stands out as a visually captivating element — part lightsaber, part magic wand, and part martial arts implement. The animators particularly display their creativity through a scene featuring the monkey’s battles with 99 demons which is rendered in the style of painted brushstrokes; it’s gorgeous.

Despite these visual strengths, the film’s rapid pace diminishes the impact of its aesthetics. It’s also evident that “The Monkey King” has ambitions to establish a franchise, using its narrative as a setup for future instalments. This forward-looking approach may have contributed to the Netflix Original’s rushed pacing and plot-centric nature.

The ambition results in an ending that feels more like a setup than a satisfying conclusion. While the film’s journey is not without its merits, a more balanced approach that intertwines the plot with character and theme could have elevated it by a lot.

Ultimately this is a movie that is more suited to younger viewers. The vibrant visuals, the unique character designs, the action and the escapades will definitely keep them engaged. But there are so many children’s movies that are immensely enjoyable for adults as well, having plenty of content that mature audiences can engage with as well. This is not one of them.

Read More: The Monkey King Ending Explained

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  • Verdict - 6/10

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