Animation and opera come together wonderfully in Wan Laiming’s donghua feature.
“With this many troops you can’t defeat even a single monkey!”
China is a country of countless beautiful cultural attractions, from its revered medicine to its food, and everything in between. It has a rich history of storytelling and boasts some of the oldest novels ever written, including Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. In the mid-20th century, the Wan Brothers – the founding fathers of Chinese animation – had a huge hit with one adaptation of the novel, Princess Iron Fan. Plans for another adaptation were made, but this time they decided to combine it with another staple of Chinese culture: Peking opera. The result took twenty years to make: the unique, and highly entertaining Havoc in Heaven.
The film follows Sun Wukong, a magical monkey born from stone, who lives on Fruit and Flower Mountain along with his army of monkey followers. After breaking his sword, he decides to visit the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, who offers him a few options. Wukong takes a magical size-changing pillar as a staff, and the Dragon King – not very happy with this – goes to the Jade Emperor to complain. To placate Wukong, Emperor offers him a flimsy non-position in Heaven as “Head of the Imperial Stables”, which Wukong initially accepts.
But things are never so simple, and Wukong gets bored of the position, realises he had been made a mockery of, leaves and insults the Jade Emperor by calling himself Great Sage Equal of Heaven. And then shit really hits the fan, as holy generals are sent to put a stop to this, but Wukong – being the character he is – isn’t taking any of it. Things escalate until it reaches boiling point, and an all-out war between the Monkey King and the Armies of Heaven is inevitable.
Havoc in Heaven is a pretty accurate adaptation of the first volume of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, which is the part of the story that deals with the Monkey King Sun Wukong and the shenanigans he got up to before embarking on the trip with the monk Sangzang. The earlier elements of Wukong’s life are left out – such as his establishment of the colony beneath the waterfall, and his initial training under Subhuti – but otherwise the film remains very faithful to the story. Oh, except Wukong doesn’t get trapped under a mountain at the end, he just sort has a happy ending. But let’s ignore that.
What makes Havoc in Heaven stand out is the style in which it presents its story, which is wholly unique to itself. While the animation can be stilted and slow at times it pops once the action begins. The characters glide around the screen as if they were dancing rather than fighting in these mesmerising, fluid motions. From Wukong’s painted face to the out-of-nowhere intermission to constant, almost cacophonous percussion, this is Peking opera in animated form: it’s so purely Chinese – in its story, presentation and as a historical marker to China’s animation boom of the 60s – that it stands out as a piece of culture in and of itself.
Havoc in Heaven has been released a few times, with various runtimes and translations. There is a fan restoration version available online, remastered and unabridged with excellent subtitles which, for an English-speaking audience, is definitely the version to watch. Compared to the silly, over-the-top blockbuster nonsense of Hero is Back (a film I greatly enjoyed for what it was), it doesn’t feel epic or particularly slick in the slightest, but it’s not really the point. Of all the Journey to the West films I’ll be reviewing this month, something tells me this one will be the closest to experiencing ancient China as we’ll get.
Verdict: By no means perfect, Havoc in Heaven is still a unique animation experience, and well worth the watch.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Drums: Like a million
Closeness to source material: 4/5
Likeability: This is the chillest Wukong I’ve ever seen
Best character design: Nezha by a mile
Methods of execution: Maybe don’t try to cook the fireproof monkey alive
Havoc in Heaven (1961)
Also known as: 大闹天宫 (Dà nào tiān gong), lit. Havoc in Tian; Uproar in Heaven
Director: Wan Laiming
Writers: Wan Laiming, Li Keruo (screenplay), Wu Cheng’en (novel)
Qiu Yue-feng – Sun Wukong
Fu Run-sheng – Jade Emperor
Bi Ke – Dragon King