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Netflix’s ‘The Monkey King’ Explores the Inner Realms of the Human Psyche

Owing to my age and temperament, I must confess that I am not partial to animated action-adventure films in general. To my unenlightened eye, the characters often seem undeveloped, the plots hackneyed, and the action-adventure label merely a euphemism for unbridled violence.

I am pleased to report that The Monkey King exhibits none of these perceived deficiencies. Skillfully directed by Anthony Stacchi, this recent Netflix release kept me on tiptoe for its entire 96-minute run. Unlike Roger Ebert, who called the movie “aggressively mediocre,” I found the film captivating and heart-warming, one that explores a wide spectrum of human emotions via its multidimensional characters. While Ebert was turned off by all the “loud noises and flashing colors,” I was quite enchanted by the way these aural and visual elements were marshalled to paint a captivating picture of struggle and conflict.

THE MONKEY KING – (L-R) MONKEY KING (Jimmy O. Yang) and DRAGON KING (voiced by Bowen Yang). Cr: Netflix © 2023

The Monkey King is based on a centuries-old Chinese tale about an ambitious, egomaniacal simian named Sun Wukong who, with the aid of a magic wand he swiped from a water demon, sets out on an epic journey toward immortality, which he can achieve by boldly slaying a hundred even more ferocious predators. Along the way, he’s aided by a young girl named Lin, whom he often treats with dismissive contempt, but who ultimately becomes a channel of enlightenment for him.

Lin’s character is particularly complex. Her mission in life is to rescue her home village from drought and despair by enlisting the support of the aforementioned water demon to bring much-needed rain. Her interaction with the Monkey King runs the gamut from fawning obeisance to unwavering loyalty to cruel betrayal—emotions that are quite familiar to women dealing with the unbridled male ego.

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But it is their love-hate relationship that makes for an intriguing subtext to this multidimensional film. And, much to the director’s credit, the Monkey King himself is portrayed in all his complexity and vulnerability.
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THE MONKEY KING – (L-R) MONKEY KING (Jimmy O. Yang) and LIN (voiced by Jolie Hoang-Rappaport).

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Cr: Netflix © 2023

Yes, there is plenty of noise and color in The Monkey King. But this is to be expected in a film whose scenes careen dramatically between earth, heaven, hell, and the undersea kingdom of Sun Wukong’s chief antagonist. Particularly vivid is the scene when the Monkey King and Lin enter hell, which is portrayed as a macabre arena of ghastly white figures. Also remarkable are the depictions of the undersea realm of the water demon, which inundate us with colorful expressiveness.

The Monkey King’s quest is finally fulfilled when he learns–from the Buddha himself—of the paradoxical importance of self-forgetfulness as an attribute of mindfulness. As portrayed in the final scenes, immortality is achieved not through mayhem but through meditation. This film is thus far more than a mere panoply of egoism and violence: it is an endorsement of a deeper reality about the human condition. Om and amen.

Rating : A

THE MONKEY KING – (L-R) LIN (voiced by Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) and MONKEY KING (Jimmy O. Yang). Cr: Netflix © 2023

Check out more of Edward’s articles. 

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

Edward Moran
Edward Moran
Edward Moran began his journalistic career many decades ago as a theater and cinema reviewer for Show Business and the New York Theater Review. More recently he contributed film reviews to and Movie Sleuth. His writings have appeared in publications as diverse as the Times Literary Supplement, Publishers Weekly, the Paris Review, and the Massachusetts Review. Moran also edited a memoir by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Christine Choy. He served as literary advisor to her film Hyam Plutzik: American Poet, which was the keynote film in the American Perspectives series at the 2007 Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin.


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