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The Monkey King (2023) Review: Powerful message, mediocre execution

Streaming has become this industry powerhouse that’s led to plenty of major companies bringing more impactful experiences to life with a modest budget and a more passionate team. The Monkey King… is not one of those.

Spearheaded by The Boxtrolls’ Anthony Stacchi in the director’s seat and Over the Moon’s Peilin Chou taking up production, The Monkey King is about as basic as basic can get. In the action comedy, we follow Sun Wukong, played by Jimmy O. Yang, plainly referred to as Monkey King throughout the entire movie, as he goes on a quest to join the Immortal Ones and finally prove himself as someone more than “just a pebble.” In his quest to beat 100 demons, he finds himself in cahoots with Lin, a poor farmgirl played by Jolie Hoang-Rappaport. It’s her who tries to open his eyes that even the tiniest of pebbles can make huge impacts in the world, even if it was more of a way to get on his good side.

He finds himself taking off on a great quest to find immortality and feed on his own self-absorbed ego. He thinks of himself above everyone and scoffs at those who beg to differ. He even ends up in a backwards way of thinking that corners himself into believing everyone is a tiny pebble in his hand. Not actually wanting to change it, but rather become the hand that the pebbles are in.

Stylish yet forgettable

The Monkey King was released on Netflix, and to some extent, it shows, a lot of these straight-to-streaming-service films often put all its budget into one aspect of the movie, in this case, it looks aesthetically pleasing, even when there’s a lot going on. It’s clear they didn’t want to entirely bastardize the tale and genuinely wanted to produce something substantial. Unfortunately, what we ended up with is another movie that has that smooth “streaming service movie” vibes. I’ve seen plenty of good movies come from streaming services, but this one just feels… off.

The music was painfully mixed. So much of the movie could’ve benefitted from compositions that fit the scene, but instead, it’s packed with rock songs and forgettable ballads. Even the most memorable song, which of course, comes nearing the end and sung by the main antagonist — the Dragon King — it’s still something that I could hear once and never feel like I need to listen again. It’s not bad, it’s just not great.

Acting-wise, it just is a mixed bag, fundamentally, the cast, ranging from front-and-center leads to middling side characters all have a level of charm to them, even if Yang’s performance does get a bit annoying at times.

Immortal he is not

I get this is a trope of the genre, by and large, you can see this as a coming-of-age tale of a young man who strives to make a difference while the world is against him. Because of his early childhood of being told he is nothing but a pebble in the hand of the Immortal Ones, demons, and rulers of the land, he has become jaded and only wants to look out for himself.

A more jaded character in and of itself isn’t a big deal, many shows and movies are able to execute this archetype without making them feel unlikable, but I can’t be the only one who feels like the crew designed the Monkey King with that as an afterthought with no intentions on following through in what feels like a first in a trio of movies. He learns nothing in the end on-screen — he’s still is loud and bombastic, and until we get another glance at his future, still as entitled as ever.

It seems like Stacchi really wants this to be a prequel to another film that focuses on a “redemption arc” of Monkey’s, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. It’s well-liked enough that I can understand if they want to breathe new air into the series, but I’m not sure it will last long.

“Just a pebble”

In some ways, its pebble analogy suits the film to a T — it’s not a bad movie, it’s just a forgettable, mediocre flick that you’ll no doubt watch once and never again. The lead is lackluster and the plot is paper-thin with twists you see coming from a mile away. In the end, the only “shocking” twist is the villain isn’t actually the Dragon King, but rather the Monkey King’s massive, unbridled, entitled, self-absorbed ego.


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