Despite recent budget reductions, Netflix’s internal animation department remains steadfast in producing vibrant and captivating creations that, if presented in theaters, could potentially divert some of the adoration that is consistently showered upon Disney and Pixar, even as their current output falls short. While it may not rival the richness and eccentricity of Netflix’s prior major release, the Oscar-winning “Pinocchio” by Guillermo del Toro, the latest adaptation in the extensive line inspired by “Journey to the West,” a 16th-century Chinese novel attributed to Wu Cheng’en, exudes energetic momentum. The film is adorned with delightful embellishments, such as the lively vocal performance by Bowen Yang as the spiteful and effeminate villain, the Dragon King. This character claims the spotlight during the film’s most captivating musical number. In response to being mocked for a dry skin condition that can only be alleviated through an amphibious lifestyle, he croons: “Since then I’ve realized there’s nothing wrong with being moisturized.” Surely, this tune has the potential to evolve into a metrosexual anthem.
Regrettably, the Dragon King makes only intermittent appearances, as the central character is the significantly less endearing Monkey (Jimmy O Yang). An overconfident braggart born from a rock, plagued by acute narcissistic tendencies, Monkey pilfers the Dragon King’s all-powerful, multi-purpose Stick, whose voice resonates like a didgeridoo and resembles a magical Swiss Army knife. With this artifact, Monkey embarks on a quest for immortality. Some of the escapades — stealing peaches, encountering the all-powerful Buddha — will resonate with those who recall the delightful Japanese live-action TV series “Monkey” that the BBC used to broadcast in the late 1970s. (This show substantially popularized “Journey to the West” beyond Asia, amusing stoners worldwide who stumbled upon it while channel-surfing late at night.)
This rendition of “Journey to the West” forgoes Monkey’s customary companions — monk Tripitaka, sea creature Sandy, and bipedal pig Pigsy — and instead introduces a Doctor Who-esque “companion.” This role is taken on by Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), who covertly operates on behalf of the Dragon King to save her village from a drought. She embodies the indispensable, intelligent female character that contemporary animations cannot go without. While her narrative is somewhat overshadowed by Monkey’s, her character design is at least more detailed: a charming widow’s peak graces her hairline, accompanied by endearing freckles, whereas Monkey’s appearance appears to be an AI-designed experiment gone awry, a fusion of simian and Fonzie from “Happy Days,” complete with flamboyant sideburns and hair.