First things first, I'm not familiar with the JOURNEY TO THE WEST novel nor am a fan of the screen adaptations. So whether the movie is faithful to the novel or not I can't comment on unfortunately. But as a standalone movie, THE MONKEY KING is very entertaining. Adapting novels and what not onscreen is something I no longer take for granted because the whole point from filmmakers' views is that you loosely create a base around the original material and then intentionally mixing in your own ideas and thoughts to put together something different. This is what I got from watching the movie as well; being a loose adaptation that is not intended to be matched to its' original source material step-by-step. I think when filmmakers made this movie, they already knew to aim the movie for a specific audience: families. Imagine a sci-fi movie with all kinds of talking animals (including bears, turtles, giant killer fish, proboscis monkeys etc) and creatures all in G-rating vibe and aiding CGI in the mix, and you'll get my point. While I'm not usually fond of family-oriented versions of movies of opposite nature, I was honestly appreciating what I saw all the way through.
Reviewer Score: 7
Now, people have not only criticized the unfaithfulness of the overall content but also pointed out how bad the filmmakers used CGI for characters and background. Sure, it may pale in comparison to Hollywood productions. But all in all it's actually pretty good for Hong Kong standards, especially when there's cheap CGI-filled Hong Kong movies existing like THE STORM RIDERS and THE LEGEND OF ZU. Something I also found remarkable was how well the Hollywood team did a great job mashing up the CGI with the actors' in motion, which I can't say about many 3D Hong Kong/Chinese movies made today. However, I still think CGI is one area China/Hong Kong can greatly improve on considering how much finance they have to invest on. I would love to see how they change this in the future, and how this can make them compete with Hollywood as a whole.
The cast includes many Hong Kong as well as Mainland talents. Despite this, the movie centers mainly around Sun Wukong (played by Donnie Yen) as well as Jade Warlord (Chow Yun-Fat), Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok), Puti (Hai Yitian), and Erlangshen (Peter Ho). Chow Yun-Fat carries his version of Jade Warlord with calm coolness and channels charisma by not even seemingly trying (not a bad thing I'd say). Likewise for Aaron Kwok, who plays his role with great menace and to great effect and leaving out everything that he used to be synonymous with in the past. If anything though, this is Donnie Yen's show as it's his interpretation of Sun Wukong that simply makes the whole movie. Donnie throws in all kinds of expressions and emotions that will have you marveled at his dedication and efforts in breathing new life to the classic Sun Wukong character, something apparently very demanding and tough for him. I now regard this movie as one of his best achievements in terms of acting. I'm also aware that comparisons have been made between Donnie and previous actors portraying Sun Wukong after its' initial release. Again, this is something I can't comment on because I have only seen Stephen Chow and Jet Li's take on Sun Wukong. But I will say this: If most people highly praise Donnie's acting performance then it must mean something significant. Regardless, this shows that Donnie has now become part in the big league of great Hong Kong acting leads and continues to improve greatly.
What about the action scenes? Since this is a Donnie Yen vehicle, people surely expect great action scenes from him as well. Knowing Donnie's choreography style and his strive to put new and different stuff in each of his movies, I think this is once again a successful attempt for him; this time he mixes up an unusual empty-handed fighting (or should I say unconventional monkey kung fu) style, traditional staff techniques with 3D technology and wirework. While I really enjoy all the action scenes (ranging from one-on-one duels and magical gimmick duels to large-scale war battles), I don't think this will sit well with those that hate CGI/wirework only wanting the authentic/real physical aspect of action choreography. This is a fantasy movie after all so these fictional elements are required anyway.
Verdict: Some things (like most reviews have pointed out) needed alot of work because they were unpolished and amateurish. But overall, I'm very impressed with how the movie was put together and wouldn't mind seeing Donnie Yen return as Sun Wukong for the sequel (begins production this fall).