Thursday, July 28, 2016

Monkey King: Hero is Back—Sun Wukong in Some Highly Animated Animation

All things considered, it is rather encouraging to see Sun Wukong, a.k.a. the Monkey King is more popular than ever in China. He compulsively rebelled against authority, leading his notorious “uproar in Heaven” before becoming a disciple of Buddhist monk Xuanzang, protecting him on his quest in search of sacred texts. Following hit live-action films starring Donnie Yen and Aaron Kwok, Sun Wukong gets the animated treatment in Tian Xiao Peng’s Monkey King: Hero is Back (trailer here), which opens this weekend in select cities.

There will be no Journey to the West for this Monkey King—at least not yet. Instead, young Liuer inadvertently frees the mischievous hero from his five-hundred-year imprisonment. It turns out the orphan could use some help. After his parents were killed in an ogre attack, Liuer was adopted by Fa Ming, an itinerant monk. Unfortunately, the lad was separated from his surrogate father when he rescued a toddler from ogres commanded by the Saruman-like Hun Dun, who is in the market for child sacrifices. Enter the Monkey King.

Except the newly released Sun Wukong will need some convincing before he decides to play the hero. Liuer will have some help from the Monkey King’s fellow Journey to the West Disciple Pigsy, who is also conveniently reanimated. However, their once and future comrade Sandy the Sandman will not be joining them this time around. Given Pigsy’s ineptitude, most of the heroics will be left up to the Monkey King, with occasional assists from the boy and the monk.

MK’s CG-animation is perfectly presentable and some of the classically-inspired design work is downright cool, such as the White Dragon and Hun Dun’s cliff-face lair. Liuer can be a bit of a pain, but the action sequences are surprisingly cinematic. It is also absolutely bizarre how much the animated Sun Wukong looks like the painstakingly made-up Kwok in The Monkey King 2 in 3D, or vice versa. Yet, there is something arguably more appealing about the wiry, hardnosed animated Monkey King than the twitchy recent live action portrayals.

Ironically, Jackie Chan provides the Monkey King’s voice in the English dub, but not in the original Mandarin. It definitely sounds like him, for what that’s worth. For additional class and cred, James Hong dubs the righteous old butt-kicking Fa Ming. Frankly, the production values are considerably higher than you might expect. However, there are several scenes that are probably too intense for most young viewers, but Monkey King-Journey to the West fans will appreciate their integrity.

Over the years, the degree to which Sun Wukong has been depicted with primate or human features has swung back and forth like a pendulum. Like the live action blockbusters, Hero is Back doubles down on his Simian-ness. It is not as visually striking as Wan Laiming’s classic Monkey King—Uproar in Heaven, but it respects the character and delivers the action. Recommended for young but relatively mature wuxia viewers, Monkey King: Hero is Back opens tomorrow (7/29) at the Cape Ann in Gloucester, MA and has a number of special weekend matinee screenings at participating Landmark Theaters.