(Xi You Ji Zhi Da Sheng Gui Lai)
Director/Screenplay – Tian Xiao Peng, Based on Journey to the West, Producers – Feng Li, Hui Liang, Ning Lin, Wei Lu & Yongan Xu, Music – Ying Wah-Wong, Production Design – Hu Liu, Qing Zhu & Xiaohu Liu. Production Company – HG Entertainment/Haut Route Animation.
A young boy Jiang Liuer is found and adopted by an aging monk. The boy becomes the monk’s apprentice as they wander the countryside fighting monsters. As one monster ravages a town, Jiang Liuer risks himself to rescue a baby girl. He falls down inside WuXing Mountain where Sun Wukong, the monkey king was banished by the Supreme Buddha for his defiance of the gods. Sun Wukong returns to life and is later joined by his loyal companion Pig. Together they fight off the demonic forces that are raising the monsters and seeking to destroy Sun Wukong.
Journey to the West is an epic Chinese tale written in the 16th Century that concerns the adventures of a scholar Xuanzang and his band of companions, which include the Monkey King, on their journey to India. The story has been filmed a number of times before:- as the Japanese film Monkey Sun (1940); the Chinese animated Princess Iron Fan (1941); the Japanese film Songoku: The Road to the West/The Adventures of Sun Wu Hung (1959); the Japanese anime Alakazam the Great (1961); the Chinese animated film The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven (1965), which is the best adaptation of the story to date; ; a trilogy of live-action films from Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Monkey Goes West (1966), Princess Iron Fan (1966) and The Cave of the Silken Web (1967); the popular the Japanese tv series Monkey (1978-9); a South Korean tv series Journey to the West (1982); a Japanese tv series Journey to the West (1993); director Jeffrey Lau’s two-part Hong Kong film A Chinese Odyssey Part 1: Pandora’s Box (1994) and A Chinese Odyssey Part 2: Cinderella (1995) with Stephen Chow as Monkey; a Japanese anime tv series Monkey Magic (1998); the US tv mini-series The Monkey King/The Lost Empire (2001) starring Thomas Gibson; the Hong Kong tv mini-series The Monkey King (2002); Jeffrey Lau’s remake of his earlier work A Chinese Tall Story (2005); a Japanese tv series Saiyuki (2006), which had one film spinoff with Saiyuki (2007); the Western-made Jackie Chan/Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom (2008); the modernised Emperor Visits the Hell (2012).
Monkey King: Hero is Back is a further animated telling of the adventures of the Monkey King. It was a troubled production with struggling finances holding up completion until it was finished thanks to a crowdfunding campaign. Moreover, the film suffered from coming out a year-and-a-half after the hit live-action The Monkey King (2014), which did striking things in retelling the story of Sun Wukong in CGI and spawned two sequels with The Monkey King 2 (2016) and The Monkey King 3 (2018), as well as Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) and its sequel Journey to the West: Demon Chapter (2017) around the same time.
Monkey King: Hero is Back is an okay adaptation of Journey to the West. And maybe if the live-action films had not raised the bar and there were only the other films that had come before to compare it to, I may well have held it in higher regard. Even so, it is still a lesser animated offering than the earlier The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven.
Certainly, the film is undeniably interesting to look at. And there are moments of visually epic flourish – the fight with the dragon, the scene where Jiang Liuer leaps off a cliff with the baby to escape the monster. But the film suffers from limited animation. We are spoiled these days by the epic quality of animation produced by Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Illumination et al. By contrast, this is animation that resembles cut-price CGI trying to look like Claymation – an interesting effect for a few minutes that becomes tiresome and immobile the further into the film you get.
Hero is Back is an okay telling. It opts to tell a tale less about Monkey King and companion (who is reduced from the usual entourage of three companions to only one) after they are resurrected rather than during their journey to the west – it is a sequel to Journey to the West if you like. It is not a modernised tale, it just places Monkey King alongside a young boy in the standard dynastic fantasy setting that most Chinese fantasy uses (in fact, looks no different from the setting of the live-action film series). There is slightly more of an emphasis on Buddhist discipline and virtue during the scenes with the monk. However, once Sun Wukong and especially Pig are revived, the film is all action scenes mixed with a high degree of slapstick humour.
The film proved a modest success at the Chinese box-office and received a dubbed US release with Monkey voiced by Jackie Chan.