I’ve mentioned this in passing a couple times before (as, for example, in my recommendation for The Forbidden Kingdom), but the Ming Dynasty-era epic novel Journey to the West is one of the most famous works in East Asia.
I don’t want to get into too much detail, but the fact that Journey to the West is one of the most popular and frequently-adapted works in East Asian Pop Culture is an important starting point for this recommendation.
Essentially, Netflix’s The New Legends of Monkey is an adaptation of an adaptation.
In the late 70s, there was a live-action adaptation of Journey to the West done by Nippon TV called Saiyuki (which is just the Japanese title of Journey to the West) and which was eventually re-dubbed by the BBC as Monkey.
Now, to my knowledge, Monkey was never aired in North America — I’d never heard of it before learning about its influence on New Legends of Monkey. It was, however apparently hugely popular in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand due to its after-school timeslot.
Also, the theme song is super catchy. And actually a surprisingly in-depth, text-accurate synopsis of the backstory.
I haven’t found anything more than a few clips of the show, but it’s clear that the BBC wasn’t taking the whole endeavour very seriously and took the “cheesy Kung-Fu movie dub” approach.
And I mean, yeah, it works.
Journey to the West itself is, if not primarily a comedy, at least a work with a lot of comedic scenes and the original Japanese version of the show that inspired Monkey is also apparently pretty light and playful. The BBC just took that and ran with it.
So it’s not exactly hard to the see the influence of the 70s Monkey on Netflix’s New Legends of Monkey.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Journey to the West is a long story without much of an overarching plot, um… arc. Taking the commedia dell’arte approach of telling new stories with established character archetypes allows for a much more focused story than attempting to replicate the entire story of the original Journey to the West. Especially within the confines of 20 20-some minute episodes.
To quickly recap the characters: Sanzang (commonly known as Tripitaka in adaptations) is a Chinese monk travelling to India to return with Buddhist scriptures, Wukong (commonly known as Monkey) is a trickster figure who spent 500 years under a mountain for his various misdeeds in Heaven, Zhu Bajie (commonly known as Pigsy) is a greedy, lazy pig monster, and Sha Wujing (commonly known as Sandy) is a river monster (or possibly sand monster; he seems to be living in a river of sand…) of some sort.
Quick note: New Legends of Monkey uses the nicknames, so the characters are called Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy.
And in New Legends of Monkey, they look like this:
New Legends of Monkey plays pretty fast and loose with the source material.
Most immediately obvious: Tripitaka and Sandy are women — though having a female Tripitaka (which I’ve seen in video games and, of course, with Bulma in Dragon Ball), or at least having Tripitaka played by a woman (as was the case in Monkey), is not an entirely uncommon occurrence in adaptations.
Also, Monkey doesn’t really look like a monkey (they could have at least given him a tail) and Pigsy is a not a pig monster.
The characters themselves don’t really have that much in common with the original characters, but the characters as presented on screen are still enjoyable in themselves.
Monkey has been changed the least. He doesn’t have all of the powers he has in Journey to the West (but if he did, the should would be a lot less exciting; he’s basically unstoppable in the source material), but he’s still a self-centred, hot-headed jerk with a magic staff and flying cloud.
Tripitaka is sort of an accidental Chosen One, and actually a pretty interesting take on the whole “Closest Thing We Got” archetype.
Basically, it’s established in the show that somebody named Tripitaka will save the world, but our Tripitaka ends up with both the name Tripitaka (she’s an orphan and her real name is never revealed) and the obligations that come with it when the original chose of Tripitaka is unceremoniously killed off about thirty seconds into the first episode.
She is, however, a lot more grounded and human than the unimpeachable paragon of the Buddhist ethic of her literary counterpart. Also, she’s clearly the weakest of the four, by dint of being a mortal human, but she’s also shown to have enough combat skill to not be completely hapless, as well as having the intellect to think her way out of her problems.
Although Pigsy starts off as a reluctant bad guy who turns Face a few episodes in, he’s probably much nicer than the original character, as his negative traits are downplayed and/or played for comedy and his sympathetic traits are strengthened.
Sandy is probably the least like her literary counterpart — even notwithstanding the gender flip. Though, to be fair, the original version is probably the least developed of the four main characters in Journey to the West. She still has water powers, but she’s a good-looking if unkempt blonde woman rather than a big ogre with a necklace of skulls, though her necklace is made of what I think are bird bones.
She’s probably the friendliest and most empathetic of the four, but clearly scatterbrained and odd, implicitly as the result of living in isolation for 500 years.
Also, the plot is much more of a straightforward “Save the World” quest than the original story. Journey to the West is more of a personal quest. Again, Tripitaka is going to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures. There’s no real threat to the world or anything like that and most of the bad guys, such as they are, are immediate threats to the four pilgrims, who usually just want to eat Tripitaka rather than having than grand ambitions to take over the world or anything like that.
Meanwhile, in New Legends of Monkey, the four are trying to the Scrolls of Wisdom, bring them to the Western Mountains for reasons that I don’t think are ever quite established, and save the world from the demons who overthrew the gods during the 500 years Monkey was trapped in a mountain (the mountain-trapping is, incidentally, accurate to the text; the rest of that paragraph, not so much).
All in all, it’s a pretty clever reference to the quest in the original story, with the sacred texts and travelling West and all, but at most, it feels like an allusion to the original story rather than a meaningful adaptation. Which, again, is not a criticism. It stands perfectly well on its own merits and is probably a much better choice for a plot arc for a children’s action Fantasy show.
Honestly, New Legends of Monkey reminds a lot of the 90s Hercules and Xena shows, though with an Chinese mythology angle, rather than a Classical mythology one. And it’s probably as faithful to that mythology as Hercules and Xena were.
I’d say it’s more Chinese mythology-inspired than a representation of Chinese mythology. The architecture and clothing are all clearly Chinese-influenced, but the cast is predominantly Australian and New Zealand…ian and quite ethnically diverse: Monkey’s actor is Thai-Australian, Tripitaka and Pigsy’s actors are both Tonga-New Zealand…ic (I’m sorry, I honestly don’t know what the adjective I’m looking for here is), and Sandy’s actress is French-Australian.
There’s not a lot of detail to the worldbuilding, but what we see on screen is perfectly serviceable as a Fantasy setting that manages to stand out from the typical Vaguely Late Medieval European setting.
Fittingly for a New Zealand co-production, New Legends of Monkey reminds of a lot of Power Rangers — fittingly because Power Rangers has been filmed in New Zealand for 12 of its 22 seasons, thanks to those sweet, sweet tax benefits.
Fundamentally, New Legends of Monkey is at basically the same level of tone and theme, as well and violence and objectionable content as any given season of Power Rangers. It’s rated PG on Netflix and is unlikely to offend or upset the most easily-offended among us.
The most risque jokes are probably going to go over the kids’ heads, but most adults are going to think they’re pretty funny. For example, Monkey is at one point noted by the histories to be a “piece of s—[Scene Transition].”
Much like Power Rangers, New Legends of Monkey isn’t trying and failing to be a high-brow masterpiece of either technique or storytelling. In fact, if anything, it’s trying to be the opposite: thanks to the influence of Monkey, it’s deliberately emulating the cheesy Kung-Fu movie style.
And it’s doing it well.
The fight scenes themselves are least adequate, the special effects aren’t great but that’s true of most TV Fantasy, the witty repartee between the characters is great and, much as is the case in Power Rangers, endearingly goofy and dumb, and the acting overall is also quite endearing, the bad guys are all bombastic and wearing ridiculous outfits, the story arc’s kind of a mess, but serves the function of getting the characters from plot point to plot point — in a generally westerly direction.
It’s clear that The New Legends of Monkey owes its inspiration to cheesy martial arts epics and it’s utterly unashamed of that fact. It’s not high art, but it’s endearing and very, very amusing.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman.
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