“I am the Monkey King. Who in the Seven Hells are you supposed to be?”
That question could apply to everyone in Netflix’s “The New Legends of Monkey,” which has given a significant cosmetic update to the story in the 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en. In the adaptation, the four main characters include two who have been gender-flipped from the original tale and none who are played by Chinese actors at all, which had sparked criticism of whitewashing earlier in production and which this review will address later.
Mainstream American audiences may not be quite as familiar with the original tale as viewers in Australia, whence this new adaptation hails. Aussie kids grew up with a late-‘70s version from Japan, known as “Monkey” or “Monkey Magic” in its BBC dubbed format. The affection for that series Down Under (and in the UK) cannot be overemphasized, and thus the title “The New Legends of Monkey” is directly tapping into that nostalgia for the older crowd who may be introducing their kids to this tale for the first time.
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The Netflix original, however, is far more refined production-wise than that kitsch classic, and yet maintains a light comedic tone that keeps the series family friendly. Actress Luciane Buchanan gender-switches the traditionally male role of the monk Tripitaka, although she masquerades as male throughout most of the season. In order to fulfill the mission of gathering some sacred scrolls, Tripitaka is aided by three magical disciples: Monkey (Chai Hansen), Pigsy (Josh Thomson), and Sandy (Emilie Cocquerel), who is also gender-flipped from the novel.
Along the way, they’re beset by magical demons who have a passion for overwrought speeches and even more flamboyant attire. This makes the so-called villains dastardly but never too frightening. In particular, two recurring scene-stealers appear to have been modeled after Michael Moorcock’s albino antihero Elric and androgynous David Bowie, respectively. The fantasy violence follows suit. The martial arts and CGI magic are showy and thrilling, but even if people are harmed, that never entails blood, guts, or even a corpse. It’s fantasy violence that usually is interspersed with cheeky dialogue and taunting glances.
Monkey is guilty of this the most, and Hansen portrays the arrogant and silly god with a captivating and comedic physicality that also serves him well as he executes spins, kicks, and flips. Perhaps because Monkey has emerged from being imprisoned in stone for 500 years, he has an endearing innocence as he realizes his powers have gone all wonky. This creates a strange dynamic in the group as he’s supposed to lead and yet is often clueless about how to proceed.
Perhaps because it’s a co-production between Netflix, ABC Me (the Australian Broadcasting Company’s children’s public digital TV channel), and TVNZ (Television New Zealand), “New Legends of Monkey” feels like it shares the same hammy humor and aesthetic of “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” but for the Disney set. Strange anachronisms like zippers and modern phrasing pop up amidst the pre-industrial trappings. The gags lean towards slapstick or distinctly goofy, rated-G fare. And messaging falls into the “be true to yourself” and “friendship is powerful” categories. But not to worry; these occasionally earnest interludes are quickly followed by jokes. After all, this is supposed to be fun, not preachy.
“The New Legends of Monkey” goes out of its way to provide positive, empowering, and inclusive messaging for its younger audience without getting too political. But this is precisely why the whitewashing issue should be addressed but is tricky to do so. Of the main cast, only Hansen is Asian — he’s Australian-Thai — but despite the lack of Chinese performers in the lead roles, the entire production is a hodgepodge of diversity that includes Chinese-Thai, South Korean, Maori, and Tongan, along with Europeans, according to writer-director Craig Irvin.
Thus, the cast hasn’t been precisely whitewashed so much as the tale avoids any need for Chinese people altogether by co-opting its roots. The original setting had been China, the Silk Road, and India, but “The New Legends of Monkey” has instead created an entirely separate fantasy realm. It’s one that’s vaguely orientalist though, from the look of its wushu-esque martial arts and armor design to its religious trappings and incomprehensible writing. Thus, it’s dressed itself up in Chinese inspiration but does so without having to actually acknowledge the Chinese. Unfortunately, this maintains the misconception that not only are all Asian cultures the same, but they’re also random and indistinct.
From an Asian-American perspective, representation matters because the United States is a diverse country that doesn’t necessarily act or look like one on screen. This lack of representation denies Asian performers jobs, perpetuates stereotypes, and creates divisions among people who don’t understand those they don’t encounter. But there’s no guarantee that Asian populations feel the same way in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. By now, Shakespeare can be updated anywhere and in any number of ways without mentioning its British roots. It’s possible “Journey to the West” has reached a similar status in Australia because of its familiarity.
Because “The New Legends of Monkey” looks slick and is fun, it should be a draw for families who want an entertaining co-viewing experience. It’s just a shame that a new generation of viewers won’t get to see an all-Asian version of this tale.
“The New Legends of Monkey” is currently streaming on Netflix.