Netflix’s “The Monkey King” lands squarely in the realm of the unremarkable, steering clear of any daring moves and delivering scant laughs, warmth, or action to captivate audiences beyond the youngest viewers. Those in your household who can read and aren’t just spellbound by boisterous sounds and vivid hues will probably find their attention wandering during this film that, despite its 96-minute runtime, seems to drag on for an eternity.
The story of Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King, is a classic narrative that has been shared through countless generations, finding its way into various forms, such as manga, television shows, and multiple movie adaptations. Notably, Stephen Chow, the creative force behind “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” in 2013, as well as the unforgettable “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer,” serves as an executive producer here, adding a touch of authenticity to this Chinese saga being retold by an American team. Yet, director Anthony Stacchi, with successes like “Open Season” and “The Boxtrolls” under his belt, struggles to inject genuine cultural essence into the film. What unfolds is a rather uninspired tale of bravery, akin to a road-trip flick that ferries its characters to Hell and back without uncovering anything particularly compelling along the way. While it’s a benign animated escapade that might pass the time, such an illustrious piece of Chinese folklore surely warrants a more fitting tribute.
“The Monkey King” narrates a portion of the iconic “Journey to the West,” focusing on the saga’s most cherished protagonist. Voiced with a touch of irritation by the inconsistent Jimmy O. Yang, The Monkey King is on a quest to achieve immortality. To do so, he must vanquish 100 demons using his magical staff (Nan Li), a potentially intriguing concept that unfortunately falls flat in its execution. Along his mythic expedition, he joins forces with a girl named Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport). This duo—comprising a monkey who believes he’s destined for heroism and a girl who doubts her own potential—does lend some much-needed framework to a storyline that previously felt too loosely strung together. It’s worth mentioning that Lin is a fresh addition to this adaptation and not part of the original source material.
“The Monkey King” draws its most dynamic visuals and character appeal from the Dragon King, a vibrant and megalomaniacal figure brought to life by Bowen Yang of “Saturday Night Live” fame. His portrayal of the egotistical demon injects some much-needed tension and energy into the latter part of the film, complete with engaging fight scenes choreographed by Siwei Zou. There are fleeting moments where the movie taps into Chow’s playful approach to martial arts, gaining a bit of speed. Yet, it often stumbles back into a routine pace with commonplace exchanges between Monkey and Lin or another formulaic adventure, all set to a heavy-metal soundtrack that confuses noise for thrills.
In time, “The Monkey King” does share a few morals, such as a cautionary tale about the protagonist becoming overly powerful towards the end. The inclusion of Buddha in the finale, as penned by writers Ron J. Friedman, Stephen Bencich, and Rita Hsiao, might spark some thoughtful discussions among youngsters about themes like peace, acceptance, and faith. Still, these elements feel more like conversation starters rather than fully fleshed-out dialogues.
Netflix has truly shined in recent years with some stellar animated shows. Hits like “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” have garnered well-earned praise, alongside other less heralded but ambitious family movies that have outshone many theatrical releases—think “Klaus,” “The Sea Beast,” “The Willoughbys,” and others. I tuned into “The Monkey King,” hoping it might emerge as Netflix’s unexpected animated gem of 2023. Alas, it seems this film won’t be ascending to the ranks of animation’s greats anytime soon.
7. Killer Book Club
Spain seems to have a production line for Netflix horror flicks, churning them out with a kind of reckless abandon. The latest to hit the scene is “Killer Book Club,” which aims to put a twist on the classic slasher formula where victims are picked off one by one. There’s potential to shake things up in this genre, but it takes a clever touch and a sharp wit—qualities that this film lacks, sadly. Instead, it falls into the trap of predictability, and here’s the lowdown.
The movie kicks off with a shocker: a girl douses her mother in gasoline and strikes a match—boom, a fiery nightmare ensues. Fast forward six years, and we’re thrown into a completely different vibe with a bunch of college students getting their kicks from scary clown videos online. These eight students make up the book club at their university, meeting in a basement decked out with the kind of dramatic lighting you only find in horror movies—dark corners and splashes of color that scream ‘spooky vibes’ and show off the director’s flair for visuals.
Let me introduce the crew, complete with the quirky nicknames the killer in the clown mask has for them: there’s Angela, our brave ‘Heroine’ (Veki Velilla); Nando, the brooding ‘Emo’ (Ivan Pellicer); Rai, the untamed ‘Wild Man’ (Carlos Alcaide); Sara, the stunning ‘Babe’ (Ane Rot), Koldo, the trendy ‘Influencer’ (Hamza Zaidi); Eva, the studious ‘Librarian’ (Maria Cerezuela); Virginia, the spoiled ‘Brat’ (Priscilla Delgado); and Sebas, the lovestruck ‘Simp’ (Alvaro Mel). You’ll appreciate these labels—they not only help you distinguish who’s who but also add a bit of personality where the script itself doesn’t quite manage to.
One unfortunate day, Angela faces a terrible ordeal at the hands of her creepy literature professor. In response, her book club buddies don some sinister clown costumes and arm themselves with clawhammers for a prank—though I secretly wished they’d go for something more poetic in their choice of tools. Their plan to scare him into learning his lesson goes horribly wrong when he topples over a railing and lands, with a gruesome thud, on a statue of Don Quixote. Talk about a major blunder! Isn’t it just the worst when that happens? It sure gets my goat!
The group quickly burns all proof of their mishap and swears to keep their lips sealed forever and ever (and ever). But no, they don’t get their “happily ever after.” During a class on “autofiction,” their peace is shattered by the ping of their phones. Someone has published the opening of a tale about eight students who accidentally kill a professor and are scrambling to hide it. The mysterious writer threatens to release eight chapters, each detailing the horrific demise of one member. It’s got to be an inside job, right? With this revelation, our not-so-bright heroes start making a series of bad decisions, like wandering alone in spooky places and setting themselves up as easy targets for the real killer.
Now it’s all on Angela, our ‘Heroine,’ to survive because this flick gives off strong vibes that it’ll wrap with the cliché image of the lone survivor in one of those shiny emergency blankets, shivering from the night’s terrors. But hey, I’m not giving away any spoilers here! Just saying, you know how these things tend to go.
In the early scenes of “Killer Book Club,” there’s a moment where Professor Shitbird Grabbyhands dismisses fan fiction with a sneer, mocking its foundation on others’ creativity. It’s unclear whether the film is trying to make a statement about itself or simply setting up a hurdle it fails to clear. The attempt to nod respectfully to its inspirations falls flat, leaving it lost in a sea of similar neo-slashers. The movie seems to think it’s being smart by piling on surprise twists towards the end. Sure, it’s not easy to guess what’s coming next, but that’s mostly because the plot is overly complex and tosses logic aside like an afterthought – take the character who survives a mere scratch when they should’ve been done for.
The film’s attempts at cleverness don’t extend to the uninspired dialogue or the forgettable characters. They fail to linger in your mind or tug at any heartstrings (I can only laugh at the forced Simp-Heroine-Emo love triangle). These characters are so bland they don’t even manage to be stereotypical, offering nothing for the actors to work with. They’re merely cogs in a storyline that would need to be extraordinary to overcome such weaknesses – but it’s anything but. Even the death scenes lack originality, which is a letdown for those who crave some gruesome action in their horror flicks.
Director Carlos Alonso Ojea tries to inject some flair into the movie to compensate for its flaws. Yet without engaging our emotions, intellect, or desire for thrills, “Killer Book Club” ends up being just another forgettable entry in the genre. My advice? Toss this one into the bargain bin. It’s a definite pass.
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