Cultural legends and myths have been fodder for storytelling (books, music, video games, movies) since the birth of each of them. Why not take something that audiences are already familiar with and either retell or reform it in a way that expands the circle of awareness and maybe add a few new fans in the process? This seems very much the case with director Wang Yun Fei’s (Yugo and Lala series) The Monkey King: Reborn, an animated adventure which centers on Sun Wukong, a Chinese mythical figure known as The Monkey King, as he battles the first demon for the safety of Earth and Heaven. What follows is less a lesson in tempering rage, reducing bravado, or aspiring to humility, but a reminder that when you call The Monkey King’s name, you best be ready to throw hands.
Master Tang Sanzang (Su Shangqing) travels with his three disciples, Sun Wukong (Bian Jiang), Zhu Bajie (Zhang He), and Sha Wujing (Lin Qiang), gathering scriptures detailing the history of the three realms and demon lore. During their travels they stop at a temple for rest and the hungry Bajie tempts Wukong into looking for a food treasure to ease his constant hunger. What the two don’t realize is that the tree they stole from, the one they treated so harshly, is also the top of a prison for Yuandi, the former ruler of the three realms, who then takes their master prisoner in his escape. Wukong, Bajie, and Wujing set off to rescue their master and put Yuandi down for good.
Prior to Reborn, Well Go USA distributed two other animated films: Ne Zha (2019) and Jiang Ziya (2020). Like Reborn, these films are adapted from other Chinese stories, but where the intention was to create a connected set of stories (dubbed: Fengshen Cinematic Universe) with Ne Zha kicking things off and Jiang Ziya carrying things forward, Reborn is its own story with no ties to the other two tales. Considering the knowing silliness of Ne Zha (there’s a Terminator audio cue as a figure materializes) and Jiang Ziya’s seriousness, Reborn feels like a marriage of the two, combining adolescent humor and language with a sincere message of egalitarianism. The end result is a film that’s never dull but also never deep. There’s no challenge for Wukong that requires him to change over the course of the adventure, no lesson that puts him on a path toward Heaven. Rather, it was all within him from the start, he just needed to acknowledge it. As such, there’s no real growth of character for him and no sense of work to make the realization hold weight for the audience. It’s not that every lead character needs to experience some kind of growth through their journey, it’s that the script is so flimsy as it is, that there should be some reason to have investment in the tale. Outside of one line from Master Tang about why he accepted his disciples, there’s no sense at all of why these three demons follow Master Tang or what they hope to gain from learning from him. Instead, they just seem to do whatever they like without regard for what it might do to Master Tang. At his kidnapping, Wukong offers no remorse at his culpability, only anger that someone would dare take his master. Even the introduction of the manfruit spirit, the physical manifestation of the qi energy which locked away Yuandi and is nicknamed Fruity (Cai Haiting), is little more than a means to offer potty humor and give Wukong someone to protect.
At minimum, I’m willing to acknowledge that what feels like a thin script could be due to a lack of knowledge of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel Journey to the West from which Reborn borrows and that there could be some information left out due to presumption of awareness, left to subtext or inference. Perhaps if the film focused less on action or included a few more character-centric scenes, Reborn might come across differently to the less familiar.
Going further with this, the tone of the film is all over the place. In one scene, the notable trickster Wukong is defiled with bodily fluids, offering one of many moments in which the character curses. Hard to tell if this is a matter of translation or if this is how the characters in the film were written, but the dialogue and situations are clearly intended for a young adult audience. That said, the action sequences and thematic contents are designed for teens and older. This disparity makes nailing down who exactly this film is for increasingly difficult, especially when the notions of equality for all within the belief system of Buddha are presented as why conflict is unnecessary and domination of one to the many unimportant. Don’t worry, though, as the dialogue is really just used as a brief respite from the fight sequences which take up the majority of the runtime. Gratefully, the action sequences are never dull, each one finding ways to challenge the creative team behind Reborn to force Wukong into new methods of dispatching his foes. In fact, credit where credit is due, it’s nice to see a character lauded as The King of Demons actually dispatch, with relative ease, all who oppose him, save for the truly powerful Yuandi. This doesn’t mean that the fight sequences are easily wrapped, so much as each one requires an ingenuity to craft and execute. In part due to the CG animation style, much of the fight sequences appear like an extended cutscene in a video game. This will certainly appeal to older audiences who enjoy the spectacle of combat, but may be a little much for those who prefer Super Smash Bros. over Mortal Kombat.
All of the above might suggest that Reborn isn’t a worthwhile experience. On the contrary. I had a blast with it. It’s fantastic to see a character actually be as bad ass as their reputation implies and to see that physical strength and cleverness of mind be presented creatively. If you allow yourself to just let the story flow without trying to latch on to any kind of logic and embrace the spectacle, it’s really good fun, as long as you don’t mind a wildly uneven tone, the heavy sense that 3D was a main component of fight choreography resulting in some repetitious stylized shots, and a script that teeters closer to thin than simple. For all intents and purposes, The Monkey King: Reborn entertains and sometimes that’s enough.
The Monkey King: Reborn Special Features:
- English language audio track
- Well Go USA Previews
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital December 7th, 2021.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s The Monkey King: Reborn website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.