Netflix’s original animated feature The Monkey King debuts today, so we’re checking in on what the critics are saying about the latest adaptation of one of China’s most popular fantasy tales.
The Monkey King is directed by Anthony Stacchi (The Boxtrolls) and executive produced by legendary actor/filmmaker Stephen Chow, who helmed the incredible 2013 live-action adaptation of this same narrative, Journey to the West (and a raft of other modern action-comedy classics).
Netflix’s animated version of the story follows a rebellious and 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.
Critics have been mostly positive with their reactions to the film, although some common complaints can be found. Several thought the story moved too quickly and the film’s narrative lacked depth. Some of the reviews we read also criticized the film for over-Westernizing the story in both narrative and aesthetic terms. That said, there is not an unflattering word to be found about the film’s technical execution, and the reviews all agree that the animation in The Monkey King is top-notch if missing a bit of Chinese authenticity.
Here’s a taste of what the critics are saying about The Monkey King.
David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter ranked The Monkey King alongside some of Netflix’s other well-received animated feature originals:
Directed by Anthony Stacchi (
The Boxtrolls), The Monkey King… mines rich source material for a widely accessible episodic adventure laced with rowdy martial arts clashes and fantastical detours. Even if its Americanization follows a standard template, the movie maintains a flavorful sprinkling of the material’s cultural specificity, its spiritual elements, and its philosophical lessons about hubris and humility.
B. Panther at Paste chose to compare the film to the previous works of executive producer Stephen Chow:
Fans of executive producer Stephen Chow’s 2013 version of the Journey to the West will undoubtedly feel a kindred spirit with this version. Though aimed at a slightly younger audience, The Monkey King still has the mix of high-stakes peril and high-reward comedy that has become part of Chow’s signature style. The Monkey King is as much a loving homage to him as to Chinese action and mythology, with winking references to Chow’s blockbuster hits like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Like those films, The Monkey King has barrelfuls of sharp satire, high-flying action, and lyrical sentimentality that are as shifting and entertaining as the myths they celebrate.
Alex Harrison at Screen Rant was far less enthusiastic about the film, reserving harshest criticisms for the story:
In this particularly exciting time for animation, when movies like the Spider-Verse series, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and TMNT: Mutant Mayhem seem to herald a new wave of Hollywood studio creativity, it is much more noticeable when an animated film is sub-par. Critics have a history of sitting through underwhelming family fare and shrugging, noting that kids will probably be entertained by the whooshing colors. I am not inclined to grade on that curve, and Netflix’s The Monkey King, a new movie based on the enduring character from Chinese literature, doesn’t clear the bar. Visual creativity and humor are present in flashes, but whatever there is to recommend it is weighed down by a poor script that never finds the story’s dramatic center. Once it loses its way, about 15 minutes into the runtime, it never really hooks us again.
James Marsh at the South China Morning Post admired the noble intentions of the film’s narrative but felt it wasn’t an authentic version of the classic Chinese story:
It is a universally recognizable and worthwhile message but is rendered wholly generic by a story whose cultural specificity extends only as far as its costumes and architecture. Even Monkey’s trusty gold-banded staff glows and purrs like a lightsaber, as though magic from any other source might be too foreign a concept for a generation sired on Star Wars. It is one of many frustrating and reductive compromises in a film that, taken on its own merits, is a perfectly passable fantasy adventure. But The Monkey King remains firmly closed as a gateway into a rich cultural universe.
On the other side of that argument, Arezou Amin at Collider felt the film was a good entry point for newcomers to the myth:
As a story and an introduction to the legend, The Monkey King does a fantastic job of immersing the audience in the story right away, with quick narration and beautiful, brushstroke-inspired visuals catching you up on anything you need to know. This allows the powerful journey of Monkey King and Lin to do the rest. How this will play to an audience already familiar with the story, I cannot say, but the film feels original enough. It is sufficiently comedic and heartfelt in a manner that should land with audiences, whether this is their first experience with the Monkey King or not.