The monks face off against the most ancient of evils in this fun animated adaptation.
“If we don’t understand fully, resort to zen quotes.”
For the first few minutes, it looks as though Monkey King Reborn is going to adapt the rather dull chapters in which Tang Sangzang and his disciples enter a monastery and are offered ginseng fruits of longevity that, for whatever reason, look like human babies. Wukong and his pals decide to steal some fruit, and as a result everyone gets punished. It’s not a particularly thrilling three chapters, and a baffling choice for a big CGI blockbuster, so when Wukong’s theft of the ginseng fruits actually undoes a seal that was binding the First Demon Yuandi (or Primordium depending on your version), things take a more interesting turn.
Fresh twists on the events of the Journey to the West are pretty important at this stage. We’ve seen hundreds of versions of the story, and while I appreciate the ones that play it straight, it’s fun to see things play out a touch differently. What’s important is to stick to the ideas presented in the book, and while Monkey Kind Reborn isn’t exactly thematically rich, it does touch upon some.
The major theme of the story is that Sun Wukong learns to be more responsible, less impulsive and not act out as much. Monkey King Reborn uses the story of the ginseng fruit – arguably one of Wukong’s shittier moments in the novel – to tell a morality tale of disobeying your master and the consequences of it. The same thing happens in the book, admittedly, but I guess kids are more receptive to a story about unleashing the first and ultimate demon than one where a monkey gets whipped a bunch.
As a villain, there isn’t much to Yuandi. While this is on par for demons as a whole, it would have been nice to give this Big Bad Evil Guy some sort of a personality. Journey to the West isn’t known for having primary antagonists or big bosses or anything – I think the Bull King and his family are as close to the book gets to recurring villains – so it would have been a breath of fresh to see what sort of character would make other demons bow. Instead, he’s just a big brute who fights good.
At least his design is nice, starting out as a giant doglike monster not unlike the Taotie before shifting into a more generic, but still visually cool, humanoid warrior. The same is true of the three disciples, who are each unique in their looks, compared to other iterations. This is especially true of Sha Wujing whose fishy design is refreshing while keeping the iconic details we’ve come to expect.
As a whole, the movie looks very nice. While it can at times lean a bit too heavily into that kids TV-style of animation, the backgrounds are often gorgeous and the action sequences are lively and full of both slapstick and exciting martial arts. The final fight against an army of demons is probably the weakest in terms of colour palette and interesting scenery, with most of it taking place against a horde of faceless grey monsters against a dull brown rocky background, but it makes up for it with some creative fight choreography.
Because ultimately that’s the stuff we want to see in a Journey adaptation: exciting locales, physics-defying battles and some quality comedy between the travellers. I’m often very forgiving of Journey films if the leads are true to their characters and work well off each other – because that’s ultimately what it’s about, and what Monkey King: Reborn is, too. It’s about the three disciples getting into trouble, with Wukong learning his lesson, all while going ham on as many demons as possible. It wasn’t the most well-polished Journey, but it’s one I’ll probably remember mostly for good. Also, that little qi energy sprite was damn cute, huh.
Verdict: Filled with big, blockbuster battles and some good chemistry between its characters Monkey King: Reborn is a decent adaptation that tries to do a touch more with its source, even if it does feel a bit like an early Marvel film at times
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Violence: A nice cartoony 5/10
Sacrifices: You knew it was coming, but it was surprisingly sad
Super Sayain: I swear Dragonball made this a canon part of Wukong
Fart jokes: 1
Monkey King Reborn (2021)
Also known as: 西游记之再世妖王
Director: Wang Yunfei
Writers: Wang Yunfei
Xuecen Bai – Guanyin
Jiang Bian – Sun Wukong
Zhang He – Bajie
Lei Zhang – Yuandi
Lin Qiang – Sha Wujing
Shangqing Su – Tang Sanzang
Zhongyang Baomu – Zhenyuanzi