Review: A Chinese Legend Gets a Frenetic, Star-Studded Netflix Animation Adaptation in The Monkey King

Perhaps a bit thin on plot and presumably aimed at hyperactive children around the world, the latest animated opus from director Anthony Stacchi (The Boxtrolls) is the action-packed comedy The Monkey King, about a monkey (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) hatched from a rock, who makes it his life’s mission to become a god-like creature called an Immortal. In order to do this, he must complete a series of journeys assigned to him by other Immortals, none of whom believe the charismatic primate will ever complete them. But after he steals a magical fighting stick from the Dragon King (Bowen Yang) to defeat more than 100 demons and anything else that stands in his way, his path to victory seems almost assured, if he can stop tripping over his own ego.

Said to be inspired by a legendary Chinese tale and featuring an entirely Asian voice cast, The Monkey King barely stops to take a breath, as far as its pacing goes. But in those rare instances when it does, it usually occurs when scenes between the Monkey King and his newfound assistant, Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), are working out exactly what her role is in their partnership. He sees her as an insignificant pebble in the grand scheme of his grandiose plans, but she repeatedly reminds him that pebbles sometime start the biggest waves. Lin seemingly wants to help the monkey because she believes in him and loves the opportunity to be in the presence of dragons, gods and even demons, but she has her own ulterior motives that make putting up with his self-absorbed nonsense worth it in the end.

But the more successful the Monkey King gets to his goal of immortality, the more power hungry he becomes, which ends up becoming his weakness. He goes head to head against the Dragon King a couple of times (both of them really want that fighting stick), and he crosses paths with the Jade Emperor (Hoon Lee), a potion specialist named Wangmu (Jodi Long), and even Buddha (BD Wong). 

Throw in some supporting work from recent Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu, Jo Koy, and Ron Yuan, framed in a colorful and kinetic animation style, and you’ve got yourself a half-decent little family-oriented adventure story that I wish took itself a little more seriously and didn’t seem so afraid to be a bit scary or menacing. I was most impressed with The Monkey King when it takes chances, such as Yang’s hilarious musical number (the film is not a musical, but the Dragon King doesn’t seem to know that). Not one of Netflix’s best animated works of late (like Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio or The Sea Beast), but completely watchable and occasionally inspired.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.