In Australia: Available on ABC Me
In the UK: Netflix. No premiere date yet
Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West is a classic of Chinese literature – indeed, it’s one of the four great classic Chinese novels. The story of Buddhist monk Tripitaka’s quest for some sacred scrolls, aided by his magical disciples Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy, naturally enough it’s been adapted numerous times for TV. However, while the book is obviously well known in the East, in the West, people often watch these shows without realising that what they’re watching is an adaptation of anything at all, let alone Journey to the West.
If you’re American, the most recent adaptation of Journey to the West was Into the Badlands. You might not have realised this, but to be fair, that’s because it had almost nothing to do with the original story. Nevertheless, it was theoretically an adaptation.
However, if you’re British, Australian or a New Zealander and of a certain age, you’re almost 100% likely to know of at least one, far more faithful adaptation of Journey to the West: Monkey!
A huge hit, it was made by Nippon TV/NHK in Japan then dubbed into English by the BBC, but probably only 1% of the audience at most knew it was both a surprisingly faithful yet also free adaptation of Journey to the West.
Watching The New Legends of Monkey, I think we’ll have pretty much the same situation for a whole new generation of viewers. Aimed squarely at the same ‘children and young adults’ market as Monkey, it also acknowledges all the changes in storytelling that TV has undergone in the past 30+ years, moving us further away from the original Journey to the West to give us something that as its name suggests is a bit more Monkey meets Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
Ditching any Daoist or Buddhist influences completely, The New Legends of Monkey relocates the action from China, India and the Silk Road to a fantasy realm inhabited by humans, gods and demons. Most of the gods have been gone for 500 years, leaving demons to run the realm unhindered. A resistance movement exists, but they’re pinning their hopes on tracing the location of the ‘Monkey King’ (Chai Hansen), a god imprisoned in rock for centuries but whom they can revive if they place his crown on his head.
Trouble is, the demons want to stop them, so it’s left to serving girl Luciane Buchanan to first find and free Monkey, then locate the Sacred Scrolls that he hid before his imprisonment. Adopting the identity of monk Tripitaka, she soon recruits two other gods, Pigsy (Josh Thomson) and Sandy (Emilie Cocquerel), to help her and Monkey find the Sacred Scrolls, all while the demons try to stop them, prompting numerous martial arts fights. Of course, it would all go a lot quicker if Monkey could summon that cloud of his…
This first season of The New Legends of Monkey is pretty variable, the variable in question being whether producer Jacquelin Perske has written the episode you’re watching or not. The first three episodes are Perske’s, airing as a single movie in Australia since they form the introduction to the show’s set-up. Here we get to meet the various gods, as well as demons.
Fans of Monkey will be glad to hear Perske and show are aware of and maintain most of the original show’s concepts and iconography. Monkey’s crown and staff look the same and his powers are the same (although a bit rusty…). The staff can grow and shrink. Tripitaka can still do her chant to make the crown constrict Monkey so he’ll do as he’s told.
But there are obvious changes. In keeping with 21st century TV storytelling, the first season is virtually a serial, there are flashbacks, there’s character development and character background. We meet families and friends. There may be hints of romance. The characters aren’t just plot functions in standalone episodes any more.
Monkey is vain and stupid as before, but there’s also more to him and he’s not quite as coarsely monkeyish as previous incarnations have been (no relieving himself on the pillars at the end of the universe here). Tripitaka may not yet get to ride a dragon-horse, but there’s more depth to him/her than a mere faithful monk on a quest. Sandy is a touch more ethereal and Luna Lovegood-ish; Pigsy gets a lot to do at first, but is largely comic relief, without the lasciviousness or gluttony for which he was named.
The show also more obviously draws on Chinese culture and martial arts than Monkey did, with plenty of actually pretty decent wu shu work on display.
This is despite the show having far fewer Asian actors, with most of the actors being white Australians, New Zealanders and Brits – many of the actors put on American accents, too, making the few Australian accents stand out like sore thumbs.
However, there are more roles for women, even though the Buddha is gone altogether from this version. Tripitaka is now explicitly a woman, not an actress playing a male role, even if the actors sometimes forget they’re not supposed to know that (“Maybe she’s relieving herself behind a tree” was one line of dialogue that I spotted that gave the game away midway through the season); Sandy is also female and there are also goddesses, demonesses and human women around, sharing in the action.
The most obvious change, however, is there’s now CGI available and it enables all manner of magic. Monkey’s cloud does actually look like a cloud, rather than a Hornby Railways figure on some candy floss, and the staff can do all manner of things.
Adventures in the Forbidden Zone
When Perske’s writing, the show is both fun and entertaining. However, once the four friends head off on their quest at the end of the movie, other writers take over and the show becomes as dark as Peter van der Fluit’s excellent but stentorian electosynth theme tune suggests. It’s all a bit more Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone than Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, with little of the comedy that characterised either the initial episodes or Monkey/Journey to the West. The extras and supporting cast in particular look like they’ve been making either YouTube fan tributes to Mortal Kombat or community centre versions of Mad Max, rather than working for the Holy Bureaucracy. This renders the middle section quite hard-going at times and nowhere near as enjoyable as when the show started, even if it does offer greater dramatic depth.
Fortunately, Perske’s back for the final episodes and the show manages to recapture most of the fun from the first few episodes. But it does mean the show doesn’t quite hit the heights it could have done and that the movie promised, making it feel like a good format in need of a plot. The fact that the show never uses some of the powers promised for its Monkey (“He can shrink to the size of an ant or create hundreds of copies of himself!”) also feels like either the budget wasn’t big enough for the show’s ambitions or the writers couldn’t think of a way to square all that magic with having worthy adversaries and challenges to be overcome.
While it’s unlikely to really live on in kids’ imaginations in the way Monkey did, The New Legends of Monkey is nevertheless much better than it could have been. It has a good cast, some good directors, some decent writing, a reasonable gag ratio and a decent number of ‘cool’ moments.
It’s just a shame it’s not sillier.