After releasing the seminal animated film Uproar in Heaven in 1965, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio finally got around to revisiting the adventures of the legendary Monkey King in the mid-eighties with The Monkey King Conquers the Demon. Although it adopts the character designs and overall visual style of its predecessor, the film doesn’t quite measure up. The magic isn’t gone, but it’s certainly diminished without the pioneering Wan brothers at the helm.
Like other films centering on the Monkey King, this full-length cartoon adaptation of Wu Cheng-En’s classic novel, Journey to the West, picks up the story in medias res, as the Tang Priest Xuanzang makes his pilgrimage to India. Xuanzang is searching for the sacred Buddhist scriptures and hopes to bring them back to China. Accompanying him on this trip are Sun Wukong (a.k.a. The Monkey King), Zhu Bajie (“Pigsy”), and Sha Wujing (often called “Sandy” in English translations). Their journey hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing to begin with, and things get demonstrably worse when they meet the nefarious White Bone Demon, a female monster hell-bent on sampling some of the monk’s tender flesh.
Of course, this isn’t any run-of-the-mill demon, so she doesn’t just come charging in for the kill. No, the White Bone Demon has her own set of tactics. Smartly, she assumes the guise of a human, hoping that the monk’s naiveté will seal his doom. On three different occasions throughout the film, the White Bone Demon pretends to be an ordinary person in need of help – an old man, a child, and a woman. But luckily for the hapless monk, Wukong is able to sniff out the imposter immediately.
Problem solved, right? Well, it would be if his methods weren’t so brutal. As it stands, Wukong’s approach to dealing with a threat is to remove it – permanently. And so, when the White Bone Demon shows up, Wukong “kills” her where she stands. The White Bone Demon escapes invisibly, sloughing off the husk of the “person” she was pretending to be. We, the viewing audience, see the truth, but the monk only sees stunning, unprovoked brutality.
Furious at his disciple’s seemingly rash (not to mention homicidal) behavior, the monk punishes Wukong and eventually expels him from their ragtag travelling party. The Monkey King complies with his master’s wishes, returning to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to reclaim his throne. But even in disgrace, Wukong remains faithful to his
sifu, admonishing his cohorts to take good care of their master in his absence. They resolve to do their best, but as events unfold, it turns out that their best ain’t exactly good enough. Once again, it’s up to the Monkey King to show up and save the day.
As animated films go, The Monkey King Conquers the Demon makes for serviceable entertainment, but it’s not exactly The Lion King. Despite using attractive and familiar character designs, the animation isn’t nearly as compelling as that of Uproar in Heaven (or even Princess Iron Fan for that matter) films, even though the filmmakers presumably had access to a much improved animation technology.
If the animation fails, it’s the film’s imbedded moral debate that resonates. The moral of the story seems to be a time-tested one – “appearances can be deceiving” or “don’t judge a book by its cover” – but there seems to be more going on than that. At each turn, the pilgrims are charmed by the White Bone Demon , whether it be by the allure of beauty, the seeming innocence of youth, or the so-called infirmity of old age. What’s most fascinating here is that the film bucks conventional wisdom – a man (the pilgrims are men, after all) should be chivalric towards women, look after the youth, and respect their elders. What The Monkey King Conquers the Demon seems to be suggesting is that while that’s good for most` situations, in some respects all bets are off when you’re dealing with the truly worst members of society. Since evil can exist in many forms, it’s up to the individual to intuit the truth on a case-by-case basis, rather than fall into kneejerk behaviors based on propriety.
Unlike other adaptations, Xuanzang objects not because he’s a complete and utter moron who doesn’t trust Monkey’s deductions, but because he’s against all killing PERIOD - as any good Buddhist perhaps should be. The film poses the question: is it wrong to kill someone who will kill you the first chance they get? Are preemptive strikes ethical? And does it matter one way or the other if the bad guy in question is a demon? For Xuangzang, it doesn’t matter at all. As he points out, the demon hasn’t hurt anyone…yet. Putting the Xuanzang’s devout pacifism against Monkey’s logical yet rashly violent philosophy of self-preservation raises a heady debate about both the limits of and the need for compassion. While the film seems to side with Monkey, there is still a lesson for him to learn during this ordeal.
If all of the above sounds like really heavy stuff for a children’s cartoon, I should point out that while there is certainly a pedagogical aspect to The Monkey King Conquers the Demon, much of this operates at the level of subtext. In reality, this film will likely register with children and adults alike as a fairly comical adventure story about good versus evil. Overall, The Monkey King Conquers the Demon is a competently told, if somewhat unspectacular rendering of the oft-adapted classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. (Calvin McMillin 2010)