Two Animated Monkey Kings

The 1980s were a golden era for after-school television programming on the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster. Doctor Who and The Goodies, Danger Mouse and Roger Ramjet, Battle of the Planets and Astroboy… but perhaps the most culturally unusual option available was Monkey [Saiyūki] (1978-1980), a British-dubbed Japanese TV show based on a 16th century Chinese novel about a Tang dynasty Buddhist monk travelling to India with three animal spirits while various demons attempt to thwart their quest to bring Buddhist scriptures back to China. Hooked from the very first episode I saw (#6 “Even Monsters Can Be People” [Goku Hanmon! San Yokai No Wana]),I never missed an episode if I could help it, including repeats. As I grew older I tracked down the Penguin Classics edition of Journey to the West (unfortunately abridged) and sought out any other adaptations I could locate, which proved frustratingly elusive (only 5 movies and 2 other TV series prior to this). I’ve recently been able to add to this tally with two very different animated takes on the story.

The adventures of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, play a significant role in the history of Chinese animation. The very first animated feature in China was Princess Iron Fan [Tiě shàn gōngzhǔ] (1941), a loose adaptation of the story of one of the most popular villains, later featured in the 24th episode of Monkey: “The Fires of Jealousy” [Kaenzan!! Bashou Sen No Ai] (1979). The Wan Brothers began planning a sequel immediately, but the capture of Shanghai by Japan during World War 2 put a significant dent in their plans until their return in 1954. It took another ten years to complete Havoc in Heaven [Dà nào tiān gōng] (1961/1964), which was released in two parts before finally being screened as a complete film in 1965.

Havoc in Heaven restricts itself to telling the backstory of the Monkey King, which forms the first part of Journey to the West and was covered in the 1st episode of Monkey: “Monkey Goes Wild About Heaven” [Sekien Tanjou Su] (1978). Sun Wukong accidentally breaks his sword while showing off for his subjects, so visits the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea to request something stronger. The Dragon King makes the mistake of offering him his greatest treasure, the Magic Wishing Staff, under the mistaken assumption that the Monkey King will be unable to lift it. In a huff at the unintended consequences of his own arrogance, he tells the Emperor that the weapon was stolen, but the court decides the best way of keeping Wukong out of trouble is to find him a meaningless administrative post in Heaven. In his new role as Head of the Imperial Stables, it seems clear to him that the best way to look after the horses is to let them run wild, but when he realises he answers to somebody higher up, he quits and returns home to Flower-Fruit Mountain, fighting off the gods sent to capture him.

Part Two sees Wukong brought back to Heaven again to guard the Heavenly Garden and its peaches of immortality, but once again Heaven’s plans backfire when he eats the peaches intended for the Queen Mother’s feast. After finding out that he’s not on the invitation list, he invades the banquet and puts everybody to sleep before getting drunk and stealing all of the food for his subjects, with a side trip to steal the Emperor’s golden pills of immortality. The rest of the film is taken up with a series of battles, eventually resulting in his capture. After the failure of multiple execution attempts, he breaks free, wrecks the place and returns home in triumph – which is where, surprisingly, the film ends! A rousing moral example for the nation’s youth.

The design of the animation draws on a mixture of traditional Chinese art and Peking opera conventions, depicting a recognisable mythological world with fluid and frequently stylised action. One of the great virtues of the medium is the ability to make Sun Wukong look and move like an actual monkey, rather than being restricted to the limitations of human body – he comes across a creature of pure mischief and fun who sees no need to respect the boundaries of authority, but who becomes an embodiment of chaos unleashed when he perceives himself as having been slighted. The extensive series of fight scenes between the Monkey King and the various gods include some traditional fight choreography, but make extensive use of stylised animation techniques to depict the effects of magic and otherwise make the battle scenes come alive. These scenes have been accelerated in the version of the film I watched, which was apparently able to slash 20 minutes from the running time without making any cuts by the simple expedient of speeding up the fights – which says something about the number of fight scenes in the second half, as this is in no way an impediment to being able to follow the action. The connection with Peking opera is cemented by Wu Yingju’s score, dominated by the traditional raucous percussion but finding space for some quieter moments.

Havoc in Heaven was an international success and has been lauded as the pinnacle of Chinese animation produced during the Second Golden Era of Chinese cinema, which came to a close in 1966 with the coming of the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was able to follow up with two further adaptations, Monkey King and Fruit of Immortality [Ren shen guo] (1981) and The Monkey King Conquers the Demon [Jīn hóu jiàng yāo] (1985), neither of which I’ve seen.

Monkey King vs. Er Lang Shen [Wu Kong da zhan Er Lang shen] (2007) brought Sun Wukong into the 21st century with a mixture of CGI and puppetry, before diving fully into the realm of computer animation with director Tian Xiaopeng’s debut Monkey King: The Hero [Xīyóu jì zhī dà shèng guīlái] (2015), which took 8 years to complete and became the highest-grossing animated film in China (before being overtaken by Kung Fu Panda 3 the following year).

Monkey King: The Hero starts promisingly in full mythic style as it depicts the climactic battle between Sun Wukong and the forces of Heaven before his imprisonment in a cage of ice deep beneath a mountain. Rendered in full pseudo-3D computer animation, the epic combatants are depicted in a “flattened” style which evokes the feel of ancient illustrations come to life, acting out their conflicts against the parchment backdrop of a bygone time which might never have existed. The remainder of the movie switches to a more “realistic” style which reminded me strongly of the output of DreamWorks Animation – a switch which, I’m sorry to say, signals the end of the only part of the movie worth watching. The remainder of the story deviates significantly from the source material, a choice which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it worked for The Monkey King [Dà Nào Tiān Gōng] (2014) and A Korean Odyssey [Hwa-yugi] (2017) – but in this instance represents a bland adoption of a mediocre plot which could have been grafted onto any fantasy setting.

The sole survivor of a troll attack in the mountains, the freshly orphaned Liuer was found and raised by an old monk from a nearby town. A few years later a larger band of trolls attacks the town in search of children, and the young Liuer narrowly escapes with a baby girl in his arms. Chased into the wilderness, he ends up accidentally releasing the Monkey King from his prison. Despite his powers being dampened by the single cuff which remains attached to his wrist, Sun Wukong defeats the trolls before escaping to the wilderness, but is unable to shake the unwanted company of the two young children. Much against his wishes, they are soon joined by Pigsy, one of the Monkey King’s celestial opponents who fell to Earth and was transformed into a pig spirit. It turns out that the trolls’ leader, helpfully identified in the credits as Evil Lord, needs children to create an elixir of immortality. The Monkey King continues to be an annoying prick who doesn’t want to help anybody until Lieur is killed by the Evil Lord, at which point Wukong’s rage allows him to break the shackle, regain his powers and defeat the baddie. There’s an artistic final shot of him against the skyline, and the movie ends. What? Really? Oh, except a 2D-animated coda playing during the final credits shows that the boy wasn’t really dead (he’s covered in comedy bandages) and they all live happily ever after, with no sign of the Monkey King. Er, OK. What?!

The inaccurately-named Monkey King: The Hero features the most unsympathetic interpretation of the titular character that I have ever encountered. Adding to the effect is an appalling performance by Joey Richter, about whom the best that can be said is that at least his petulant portrayal matched the material. Astonishingly, somewhere along the line, somebody made the decision that the Australian and New Zealand audiences would rather listen to him than to the original English dubbing choice for other markets – Hong Kong action legend Jackie Chan! Admittedly, Chan’s strengths lie more with his physical talents than his dramatic range as a dubbing artist, but it’s difficult to imagine him being worse than Richter (and you can hear him in the trailer below). The one bright spot in the voice cast is James Hong (Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China) as Old Monk, but he has such a small role that Hong’s presence is barely felt.

The character design is largely uninspiring, although the decision to conceptualise the trolls as a cross between frogs and apes has potential. Sadly, after showcasing the froglike aspects of their movement in the initial assault upon the town, the animators seem to forget about this aspect and the trolls spend the rest of the film moving around like any other biped. The only creature that comes across at all well in the body of the film is a white dragon – the designers have sensibly realised that Chinese dragons don’t need to be redesigned and it moves beautifully, writhing sinuously through the air with scales gleaming. The landscapes are also quite lovely to look at – although, being mostly static (at least until some of the bigger creatures start colliding with them), they don’t really present much of a challenge to the animation team.

Anybody unfamiliar with the Monkey King could be forgiven for not realising that Havoc in Heaven and Monkey King: The Hero were inspired by the same source material, so different are they in plot, tone, character and style. While Havoc in Heaven adapts only the first seven chapters of Journey Into the West, stopping just short of the Monkey King’s punishment and skipping the remaining 93 chapters which depict the journey of the title, it’s both faithful to the source material and imaginative in its visualisation. Monkey King: The Hero starts where the other film left off, but barely pays lip service to the source material, with every single creative divergence serving to turn the story into a poorly structured bland retread of well-worn Hollywood cliches. If you absolutely must watch both films, make sure to save Havoc in Heaven for last – and, ideally, wait to watch it on another day entirely so that the taint of Monkey King: The Hero has had time to fade away.

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