Should You Watch Netflix’s New Animated Movie ‘The Monkey King’?

Our PLAY, PAUSE, OR STOP? review of the new Anthony Stacchi adaptation of the classic Chinese tale.

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The Monkey King Netflix Movie Review

Picture: Netflix

The latest Netflix animated feature, The Monkey King, is now streaming, but should you give it a watch?

Inspired by an epic Chinese tale from the novel “Journey to the West”, The Monkey King is an action-packed family comedy that follows the charismatic Monkey and his magical fighting stick on an epic quest for victory over 100 demons, an eccentric Dragon King, and Monkey’s greatest foe of all – his own ego! Along the way, a young village girl challenges his self-centered attitude and shows him that even the smallest pebble can have a big effect on the world.

Announced by Netflix in May 2021, the film was selected as the closing film at the 22nd New York Asian Film Festival, where it had its world premiere on July 30, 2023.

Directed by veteran storyboard & visual effects artist turned director Anthony Stacchi (Oscar-nominated The Boxtrolls, Open Season), The Monkey King is backed by such illustrious producers as Over The Moon producer Peilin Chou and legendary Chinese actor/director Stephen Chow, who made a name for himself globally with his action comedies Kung Fu Hustle & Shaolin Soccer before making a film version of Journey to the West back in 2013.

The film also features an impressive cast of voice actors, including SNL’s Bowen Yang, comedian Jo Koy, Oscar-nominated actress Stephanie Hsu (Everything Everywhere All At Once), Law & Order: SVU & Jurassic Park franchise staple B.D. Wong, Watchmen’s Jolie Hoang-Rappaport, & Silicon Valley & Netflix’s Love Hard comedic standout Jimmy O. Yang as The Monkey King himself.

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

With talent abound, especially in the realm of animation, it should come as no surprise that the character & production design are the most impressive pieces of the project. When you have a boundless egomaniac lead bouncing literally through Hell and back, the world-building along his legendary journey must pop off the screen. Reel FX Animation, who previously worked for Netflix on 2021’s Back to the Outback, took over the project from Tangent Animation after they shut down in the summer of 2021.

Of course, when you think of the work of producer Stephen Chow, you also think of the frenetic pacing, kinetic energy, and sarcastic wit of his characters. This film is no different as was the intention of director Anthony Stacchi and his collaboration with Chow himself.

“Even from the beginning, we saw the Monkey King character as an anti-hero at the core of the story,” Stacchi notes in a Q&A provided by Netflix. “That is something people love about Stephen Chow movies like Kung Fu Hustle, where his main characters are somewhat unlikable for a lot of the movie, but you are with them and rooting for them because you know why they are the way they are, and you’re hoping that they redeem themselves before the end of the movie. Stephen Chow always wanted our Monkey King to be true to that, and sometimes we had to find a less jerky compromise!”

While there are some things to admire from The Monkey King’s visual appeal and exceptional source material, the distillation of the larger novel into a “lost chapter” summation of sorts makes this a more confounding final product.

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Picture: Netflix

In this story, the Monkey King ascends with reckless abandon and unchecked hubris that largely never hurts him or his massive ego. His ascension is also aided by his trusty stick that he flat-out steals from the master of the sea, The Dragon King, without any thought or care. He defies anyone who tries to rein him in or teach him humility and many people suffer the consequences of his actions. Monkey finally meets his match in his confrontation with Buddha and finally learns there is something more powerful than him in the universe. However, because this is only one piece of the Monkey King tale, the film does not flesh out the lessons of this confrontation like the original legend. In fact, there is little to be gained from Monkey’s character arc as the film plays out like a petulant child constantly getting his way until he is put in time out and then never truly has a discussion on his actions. He always has his stick and he never becomes spiritually fully formed.

Stacchi states in the previously mentioned Q&A that the most challenging part of the production was “the push and pull between being authentic to the original Chinese folk tale, and the rich cultural importance of this story in China and Asia, and still making it comprehensible for a Western audience … Monkey King has meant something different for every generation of Chinese people, and Stephen Chow definitely wanted authenticity for the tone of certain things, especially the notion of keeping it a spiritual journey, and never losing Monkey’s complex anti-hero – rebellious and sometimes a jerk, but beloved hero-of-the-people – personality! We had to find the right balance on both of those fronts.”

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

Unfortunately, I think the film loses this challenge in portraying Monkey’s journey. The balance of anti-hero and spiritual enlightenment never seem to work and the notion of him as a hero to the people gets lost when his downfall is met with applause from the local villagers and buoys the status of his duplicitous sidekick of sorts, Lin. No one seems to have a moral compass and what seems to happen to Lin and somewhat to Monkey by the end of the film seems forced with little character development in their arcs to sell otherwise. Yes, Monkey is just an outcast who took his feelings of abandonment out into the world and never stopped fighting for recognition. He deserves love like anyone else, but he also spit in the face of anyone who tried to give him some guidance. The film gives a last-ditch attempt at what it thought it could pass on in the final moments between Monkey and Lin, but it was too little, too late, and mostly unearned.

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

Overall, The Monkey King is a visual delight with incredibly talented performers and animators, but the shrunken-down version of the volumes and volumes of the legendary Chinese story it derives from never measures up. With thin messaging, forced friendships, and contrived enlightenment, the film needed more focus on its takeaways to fill the souls of its global audience.

Watch The Monkey King on Netflix If You Liked

  • Kung Fu Panda
  • The Boxtrolls
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • Over The Moon

MVP of Netflix’s The Monkey King

Jo Koy & Ron Yuan as Benbo and Babbo

A not-so-dynamic duo of fish minions, Benbo and Babbo are the Dragon King’s most-trusted yet impossibly stupid henchmen. They are the Dragon King’s biggest fans, and they share in his dream of world water-domination so that they’ll be close personal friends with the most famous villain of all time. Koy & Yuan bring out a lot of the much needed humor beats in their conversations with the over-the-top Dragon King and seem to have a great time doing it. Their sell job on the Peaches of Immortality might be the best gag in the whole movie with a call back at the end to boot.



With the impressive roster of animated features that Netflix has produced over the years, you can find ones with stronger stories and character arcs than this one.