Saturday 6 June 2020

REVIEW: The New Legends of Monkey

I stumbled across this one on Netflix. It's from 2018, and it's only the latest in a long line of series and films based on Journey to the West. The version we know, of course, is Monkey from the late 70s, which was the dubbed over version of the Japanese series Saiyuki, which was a Japanese series based on a Chinese story, filmed in China and Mongolia. This one is clearly heavily influenced by Monkey, but this one is an Australian/NZ/US co-production, filmed in Australia I think but with a cast that's mostly Kiwi.

It's very much a kids' show, with 25 minutes episodes with simple, straightforward morals and some gentle humour. This is, in no way, a bad thing. There's a lot of room in my viewing for a show like this, and it's an awful lot of fun. It's funny seeing something so clearly based on the old Monkey, with its various ridiculous elements remade for kids who were too young to see even the repeats of the British version, but that's the joy of these remakes. I had no idea the series was such a cult classic in Australia before I caught this one and read up on it.

Still, this is very much its own thing, even if it is based on the old Monkey. And really, that's great. There have been dozens of adaptations of Journey to the West, itself based on ancient Chinese folklore, itself rooted in earlier Asian mythology. I caught one version in Thailand some years ago, which was dubbed in Chinese and subbed in Thai, and I could still tell roughly what was going on. This is rather different. It's only loosely based on the Chinese roots, instead coming up with a new fantasy world, and there's as much introspective angst as there are comedy pratfalls and choreographed fistfights. It's almost tokusatsu in places, but it's a very beautiful, well crafted sort of fantasy battle world. Think the Power Rangers movie reboot, rather than the 90s series, maybe with a bit of Farscape thrown in.

The four core characters are there, now played by very beautiful young people, a long way from the ugly monsters that populated the original book. In fact, pretty much everyone in this is gorgeous. Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy are all there, albeit nearly unrecognisable from the familiar versions at first glance, but this is Tripitaka's story. In a clever reference to the original, in which the beautiful young actress Masako Natsume played the monk, this version of Tripitaka is a girl who poses as a monk in order to escape an attack on the monastery where she was raised. She's played by Kiwi actress Luciane Buchanan, who gives the part a nice mixture of wide-eyed innocence and gritty resolve. It's her journey from a frightened girl to the saviour of the west that is the central story of the series.

In rapid succession, she meets Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy. This is a universe of gods and demons, although spirits might be a better word. The only difference is that the gods are immortal and the demons live for six hundred years, although that can be circumvented with powerful magics. Also, the demons generally have white-blond hair, making them look somewhere between Spike from Buffy and the zombies from iZombie.

Monkey is, of course, the most powerful of the gods, but after being imprisoned for five centuries, his powers have waned to the point of uselessness. He's freed by Tripitaka who joins him on his quest to stop the demon king from achieving immortality. Played by Australian-Thai actor Chai Hansen, Monkey is as arrogant as you'd expect but learns a bit of humility as time goes by. It's still hugely satisfying when he finally gets enough power to summon his iconic cloud in the final episode. There's also a hint of attraction between him and Tripitaka, which is interesting considering that it begins when he believes her to be a boy. (Neither Pigsy nor Sandy are either surprised or bothered when they learn she's a girl.)

Pigsy, the voracious monster of the old stories, is now a big chap who still has a healthy appetite for all of life's pleasures. Played by Josh Thomson from NZ, he's a very likeable character, and I like how when we first meet him he's in the lovelorn thrall of a demon countess. Sandy gets a gender-switch, played by Australian Emilie Cocquerel with what might be an attempt at a cod-English accent. She's a batty sort, having been trapped alone for a long time, but perhaps the most compassionate of the three non-humans in core cast. She's also the cutest person in the cast and my firm favourite. Both Sandy and Pigsy are described as gods, rather than the cursed monsters of the old stories, but Sandy was shunned as a demon in her youth. It's an intriguing bit of backstory, suggesting gods are born to mortals, but given that Sandy looks Caucasian and has white-blond hair, it looks like she might be a demon after all...

There's been some talk about the racial casting of the series. It's hugely diverse, with people from all manner of ethnic backgrounds, and I can't say I'm happy with people calling it whitewashing - more than half of the core cast are non-white, roughly even in the overall cast and the ones that are white are mainly monsters. The core cast includes two New Zealanders of Tongan descent, a white Australian and a Thai Australian, which is a pretty good mix, although it is odd having a series based on Asian folklore with precisely half an Asian in the main cast. Still, the series seems so far removed from the original works as to make me wonder if this even matters anymore.

Your mileage may vary, but I found The New Legends of Monkey to be a very enjoyable little adventure. A second series has reportedly been recorded and was scheduled for release this year, but there's no sign of it as yet. I hope it appears in time, and I look forward to rejoining the prettified cast of godlike entities.

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