A Chinese literary and art icon, Sun Wukong can be understood as an anti-hero who’s slow to learn his lesson, which leads to the gods often needing to discipline the rambunctious Monkey King. But his annoying persistence explains why he endures beyond the 16th-century Chinese Journey to the West texts by Wu Cheng'en.
Now, in addition to 2020's The New Legends of Monkey King series and 1995's two-part A Chinese Odyssey films, Netflix will house yet another Monkey King tale. CGI-animated by Netflix Animation and the Shanghai-based Pearl Studio, The Monkey King is a retelling is thanks to its producer Peilin Chou, who finds something relatable in a superpowered simian who can’t humble himself.
You can’t simply cover 100 chapters' worth of story in a feature-length film. Many film adaptations might drop in the middle of the sprawling Journey to the West. Born in 2015, The Monkey King project hatched from this impetus: “How do we tell this Monkey King story on a global scale in a way that hadn’t been done before?” says Chou. There’s already an infinitesimal sea of Journey to the West adaptations. As a child, I sporadically watched the highly regarded 1986 live-action series whenever my Vietnamese grandparents played the DVD. (That jamming intro plucks the nostalgia strings.)
There are already many animated incarnations of Sun Wukong as well in donghua (Chinese animation). The landmark 1964 Havoc in Heaven (by the pioneering Wan brothers) illustrates him as a mythic warrior. The 2016 CGI Monkey King is Back (Sun Wukong English dubbed by Jackie Chan for Western appeal) portrays him as somewhat of a fallen action hero who relearns his heroism. The Monkey King also recently factored in the Disney adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese. Directed by animator Anthony Stacchi (who directed The Boxtrolls of Laika), Chou’s The Monkey King injects a contemporary attitude with comedian Jimmy O. Yang voicing the titular primate. While contemporary isn’t a novel invention (again, a monumental task), this vibe befits his comedic and human appeal.
The production also has a god of comedy at the helm: executive producer Stephen Chow. The Chinese director-actor-screenwriter had already crafted his own artistic rapport with the Monkey King. After all, he played Sun Wukong in the aforementioned 1995 A Chinese Odyssey. Then he wrote and directed the 2014 Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and its sequel. So it was vital for The Monkey King to elicit Chow’s signatures. Fight choreographer Siwei Zhou, whom Chou describes as “Stephen Chow’s protégé,” recorded live-action fights to supply references for the fight sequences. The hair-rollered Mayor’s Wife, a minor character voiced by Stephenie Hsu, is one conspicuous nod to the iconic Landlady of Kung Fu Hustle. Also, the gags hurled into the cosmic heavens feels very Chow in a Looney Tunes sense.
This is a goofy movie where the sea Dragon King (voiced by SNL star Bowen Yang) gets a diva villain number (composed by the Six songwriters) and grouses about his skin complexion. And Chow also directly ensured the film’s “grounding in a spiritual journey,” featuring the Buddha (BD Wong) and Heaven’s immortals who try to school the monkey in patience and enlightenment.
“That’s a pretty signature thing in Stephen Chow’s film that you have a protagonist who is not always the ‘good’ character,” Chou shares, “but you understand where they came from.” Just when you think Sun Wukong has retained a moral, he swears more mischief and mayhem.
As a Taipei, Taiwan-born U.S. immigrant who grew up in California, Chou is no stranger to Chinese mythic figures. She also produced and consulted for the Pearl Studio-animated Netflix feature selection Over The Moon, a musical tale about a Chinese girl seeking out the moon goddess Chang’e (voiced by Phillipa Soo).
"I don't remember a time when I didn't know the Monkey King," she says. From Saturday morning Chinese school, to children's books, and toys, the Monkey King wandered her childhood and adulthood. Now having two boys of her own, Chou passed this affection to them. When they visited family in Taiwan, they hunted for Journey to the West graphic novels and toys. They would especially collect the Stick, Monkey King’s staff, which he pilfered from an underwater kingdom.
“[My boys] of course, love the Stick,” Chou reminisces. "We probably still have a dozen sticks in our home from over the years…It's been in the landscape of my life and their life for decades.” In the film, Wukong’s iconic stick (named “Stick”) grunts and rumbles with its own voice in pulsating neon colors.
Chou’s resume includes Kung Fu Panda 3 (credited for development) and Abominable (producer), both of which were animated by Pearl Studio. When she first started producing for the animation industry, she felt there were virtually “zero Chinese stories, Asian stories, being told on a global platform” for her. She grew up never seeing anyone that looked like her in mainstream stories. Ensuring more Asian-led animated high-profile projects is “about feeling seen and seeing yourself reflected,” she says. To see an animated Asian face legitimizes that “you are a person here too, of this community…you’re not alone.” (She laughs and replies, “Yes, yes!” when I comment that the 1998 Disney’s Mulan was probably my first animated Asian face for my 4-year-old eyes.)
There’s something both divine and human about another animated Sun Wukong story. “[Monkey King] really is an underdog. Even though he is arrogant and narcissistic, people really admire that he never gives up.” His human sidekick, Lin (a plucky Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), also delivers an important lesson for Chou: “You have to keep writing your scroll, your story.”
The Monkey King will be released on Netflix on Aug. 18.
Published on August 17, 2023