More than three years in the making, and easily the most ambitious cinematic rendition yet of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” “The Monkey King in 3D” nonetheless can’t match the technical refinement or storytelling smarts of its Hollywood counterparts. Hong Kong helmer Soi Cheang infuses a simplistic, action-driven narrative with inexhaustible energy, but one expects greater stylistic flair and substance from the veteran helmer behind “Motorway” and “Dog Bites Dog.” Still, this CG-cluttered fantasy epic will still do well if marketed as family entertainment; opening on multiple Imax screens at home, it’s already expected to break Chinese New Year B.O. records.
Chinese viewers will be compelled to compare “The Monkey King” with Stephen Chow’s recent “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”; while that film filled in the gaps of Xuanzang’s early life, this one traces the path that led Monkey to become the monk’s disciple. Admittedly, Chow’s humor and brilliantly subversive instincts are inimitable, but the collaboration of four scribes here has nevertheless produced a shallow, juvenile screenplay that plays like “Journey to the West for Beginners,” with borderline-cardboard characters.
The pic kicks off in high gear with an apocalyptic turf war between the deities and demons, rendered in six minutes of nonstop, “Transformers”-style mayhem during which both sides seem less intent on defeating each other than simply smashing the surrounding celestial architecture to smithereens. The deities prevail, led by Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-fat), whose sister, Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen), pleads for the life of rebel leader Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok), whom she loves. The couple is banished, along with the whole demon tribe, to Flaming Mountain.
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The task of postwar reconstruction falls on the shoulders of goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin), who gives up her own body to fill the cracks in the firmament (don’t ask how). What’s left of her afterward is a pink, Kryptonite-ish substance that falls to Earth and enables the genesis of a primate embryo. And so Monkey is born.
While living inside his bubble, the infant Monkey is befriended by a snowy fox. When he grows up (now by Donnie Yen), he re-encounters the fox in the form of a pretty, fur-clad girl, Ruxue (Xia Zitong). They fall in love, entwining tails like in an old Disney cartoon, blissfully unaware that Bull has other plans for them in his scheme to retake the Heavenly Palace. Meanwhile, the Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chen) sends Taoist master Puti (Hai Yitian) to be Monkey’s mentor and teach him magic. Unfortunately, Puti is not much of a disciplinarian, and his pupil, now called Sun Wukong, becomes naughtier than ever.
For more than 100 minutes, Wukong goes on a series of adventures, which invariably involve him vandalizing deity property like the Eastern Sea Palace, Jade Emperor’s celestial stable, or the fairy peach grove. Most Chinese kids know these chapters by heart, and there’s no new take here; the only novelty is that the effects are splashier in such a movie adaptation, with CGI so pervasive that one sometimes forgets they’re watching a live-action film.
“Journey to the West” was one of the few ancient classics not branded “revisionist” when the Chinese Communist Party took power: During the Cultural Revolution, in such propaganda films as the animated “Uproar in Heaven,” the Monkey King was celebrated as a role model for Red Guards — an anarchic force of nature that rose up against the ruling elite. In Jeff Lau’s “Chinese Odyssey” series, made on the eve of Hong Kong’s handover to China, the Monkey King was portrayed as an Everyman at the mercy of history, grappling with existential questions.
This current blockbuster incarnation, by contrast, is arguably the most vanilla of the bunch, portraying Monkey/Wukong as playful rather than rebellious, and only a threat to the social order when treacherously provoked. All of which makes him friendlier to a tyke audience, but it provides Yen with little room to flex his acting muscles or otherwise emote effectively; in fact, the thesp looks unrecognizable in his hairy suit and heavy makeup.
Jade Emperor is as majestic and magnanimous as any absolute ruler can get, but it’s a dull role, and Chow’s attempts to enliven it through occasional banter with Wukong come to naught. Kwow looks sexier than one might expect for a man with horns jutting out of his forehead, but his vengeful Bull is one of the flattest roles he’s played. Bull’s accomplice, the three-eyed celestial gatekeeper Erlangshen (Peter Ho), proves the most intriguing and psychologically persuasive character here, essentially a disgruntled employee who’s been denied a promotion or pay rise for several centuries.
Yang Tao and Cheung Man-po’s compositions and the computer illustrations (by more than a dozen vfx companies) boast a geometry inspired by traditional Chinese art, notably in a scene where a pack of flying horses form a beautiful symmetrical pattern in the sky. However, many of the visuals are oversaturated and simply sub-standard, resembling cheap computer-game fare; most annoyingly, the fight scenes are often obscured by scattered debris. The creature design ranges from magnificent to kitschy.
With so much animation crowding the background, the terrific high-wire action (directed by Yen) is frequently upstaged. Production design is sumptuous when it comes to the various heavenly and underwater habitats, but inexcusably slack in its evocation of the hellish Flaming Mountain, which consists of only two sets: a dreary, charred cave interior and a sooty pit.