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Monkey Magic DVD

Monday, 23 February 2009 18:34

"Monkey Magic" is a big-screen rendition of Monkey, the cult Japanese TV series from the late 1970s, which in turn was based on a classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West”, written around 1590. As this movie only has a couple of hours (as opposed to 52 episodes) to tell its story, what you get is essentially an extended episode of the TV series, with much higher production values and modern effects.

The movie sets the scene very quickly: Exiled to Earth from Heaven for bad behaviour, the immortal Monkey, along with fellow warriors Pigsy and Sandy are escorting Buddhist monk Tripitaka from 7th Century China to India to gather some ancient sutras that will bring peace to the world. Exhausted, hungry and thirsty after traipsing across the desert, our travellers come across a settlement of Tiger People.

Monkey Magic DVDBeing good-natured folk, Monkey and co agree to help the natives fight off two implausibly-named demons: King Gold Horn and his brother, King Silver Horn. Not only have the fearsome Horn brothers devastated the land with their evil magic, but they have also turned Tiger Princess Reimi’s parents into turtles!

Tripitaka agrees to help restore Princess Reimi’s parents to their human forms, so our heroes (with Reimi in tow) must take a detour to retrieve a magical orb from her grandfather. Little do they know that the orb could just as easily lead to utter chaos if it fell into the King Horns’ hands...

As I pressed “Play” on my DVD remote control, I was filled with expectation and not a little trepidation. I warmly remembered spending countless school breaks in the playground, leaping around like a loon and blowing through my fingers to summon a make-believe flying cloud. All the kids wanted to be Monkey, a flawed but amiable kung-fu hero who suffered for an irrepressible ego, but also an equally strong spirit of adventure and good heart.

As with “classic” Doctor Who, the sets and effects in the 70s were pretty ropey, but the charisma of the cast and the energy and bizarre but fun nature of the plots elevated the show to the status of a genuine classic. I was intrigued to find out how this new, made-for-cinema version measured up, especially as I had only recently revisited the TV show, and had the flavour of it fresh in my mind.

My initial impressions were not good. No stylised, cheesy English dubbing track is provided – one of the highlights of the TV series. The actor playing the pivotal role of Monkey (Shingo Katori) appeared to lack the charm of his TV predecessor (Masaaki Sakai). Rather than having the lightness of touch to make the audience laugh with his incessant moaning about the journey, and his regular lapses in commitment to the cause, this Monkey was just plain annoying. He was loud, had tantrums like a spoilt five-year-old, and all the subtlety of a plank.  Who was this shallow imposter who dared to try to replace a childhood hero?! Worst of all, his hair was blond instead of black!

Pigsy and Sandy were not any better, again lacking in the warmth of their TV versions. It did not help that the movie joined the group in the middle of their journey, rather than retracing how they met up. However, as the movie progressed, and I settled into this new, hip interpretation of the classic tale, I realised my early take on it had been a little harsh. The movie does manage to recreate the vitality and slapstick humour of the series, and whilst it might not make you laugh out loud very often, it matches the 70s version for out-and-out daft inventiveness.

Actors with just 120 minutes of screen-time have a tough proposition compared with the established series’ duration, in terms of establishing their portrayal of the characters. Accordingly, they do the best that they can as the plot rattles along at a lightning pace. The movie format also means that Monkey, Tripitaka and Reimi get the lion’s share of the action, whereas Pigsy and Sandy are somewhat sidelined.

Where the movie succeeds most is in its depiction of the action-packed quest to retrieve the magical orb, as no end of outlandish perils awaits our heroes. Evoking the scale and themes of “Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “The Lord of the Rings” and countless Terry Gilliam pieces, the situations and characters they encounter are thrilling and mesmerising.

Stand-out examples include the gang being chased by a very persistent, gigantic stone Polo mint, Monkey’s dizzying cloud-bound racing duel with Kind Silver Horn, which closely resembles “The Phantom Menace”’s pod race, and the team’s bizarre attempt to dispatch a massive dragon using a “Hoover gourd”. Yes, really! Of course, there is plenty of kung fu fighting, and for the most part it is exciting whilst being sufficiently sanitised for a family audience.

Only near the end of the movie does the tone of the combat darken, and blood flows quite freely (hence the DVD’s 12 certificate). The production values are excellent throughout, with magical use of CGI and animatronic effects, superb costume design, and big, bright and very colourful set design.

Sound and music are also used effectively, though the booming dance music that occasionally accompanies the action can be a little jarring, but again, that is probably part of the price for bringing this ancient tale up to date. Lastly, the movie is mercifully light on the slightly grating religious platitudes of the TV series!

"Monkey Magic: The Movie" is available now, priced £15.99 for the DVD version, and £19.99 on Blu-Ray, or less from

Sadly, there are barely any extras: trailers, TV spots and a limp single-page text article are all you get!


Monkey Magic: The Movie (2007, Kensaku Sawada)


Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37