In Anthony Stacchi’s daring take on the 16th-century Chinese classic “Journey to the West,” the legendary Monkey King, Sun Wukong, embarks on an extravagant adventure.
One curious twist: the Monkey King’s iconic weapon, the Ruyi Jingu Bang, which has gone by many names over the centuries – from the Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod to the As-You-Will-Gold-Banded Cudgel – is now simply called “Stickipoo.”
It’s hard to ignore the subtle nod to George Lucas here, with robotic sound effects and a lightsaber-like glow. “Star Wars” borrowed from Daoism’s concept of the Force, and now, this animated children’s spectacle stakes its claim as a superhero saga.
The Boisterous Arrival
The narrative wastes no time establishing the Monkey King’s character. Emerging from a rock, his crimson laser eyes pierce the heavens as he boldly proclaims his intention: to seize the gods’ attention by defeating a hundred adversaries. Accompanied by a whimsical heavy metal soundtrack, the Monkey King’s grandiose personality shines through (“Who elicits screams from demons at their doorstep? None other than the Monkey King!” proclaim the lyrics).
Arrogant, power-hungry, and dismissive of anyone he deems inferior (which is pretty much everyone), our protagonist is on a journey destined to teach him the value of patience. Buddha (portrayed by BD Wong), a colossal figure glowing from within like a salt lamp, assumes the role of his mentor. However, inner peace is a luxury this frenetic tale can ill afford, as there are foes aplenty to taunt, pummel, and even threaten to urinate on (a peculiar callback to the original text).
A Barrage of Humor
The screenplay, credited to Ron J. Friedman, Stephen Bencich, and Rita Hsiao, hurls a barrage of jokes at the audience. Even in the midst of a battle set in Hell – yes, Hell – Yama (brought to life by Andrew Kishino), the ruler of the underworld, takes a moment to break the fourth wall, sealing our doom with a mischievous grin.
The visuals are so frenetic that they might initially seem thoughtless. To truly appreciate the animators’ craftsmanship, one must cultivate a Zen-like focus. Yet, amid the chaos, there are moments of breathtaking beauty. A scene featuring countless blazing lanterns suspended over a vast sea of spectral figures evokes the aesthetic of the artist Yayoi Kusama’s interpretation of the afterlife.
Prepare for an abundance of laughter, as numerous jokes land successfully. (One can’t help but chuckle when a nearsighted sage, voiced by James Sie, attempts to shoo away the obstinate monkey with the dramatic command, “Coconut him.”) Among the immortals, half speak like rebellious teenagers lurking behind a mall, and, with the exception of Buddha, all are self-absorbed, reveling in a cosmic hierarchy where deities delight in ten-foot-tall egg tart sculptures of themselves, while humanity is relegated to insignificance.
Stacchi’s portrayal of the divine carries a sardonic edge, teetering on the brink of campiness. At times, it almost feels inspired by the legendary drag performer Divine, especially when the Dragon King (played by Bowen Yang) emerges from his palanquin, moistening his fur to prevent flaking.
The Exception: Lin’s Grace
Amid this uproar, there is one exception: Lin (portrayed by Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), a village girl whose sensible nature provides a stark contrast to the chaos around her.
In a different story, her empathy might seem unremarkable. However, in this tumultuous narrative, she emerges as a refreshing voice of reason.