In 2016 I found myself in the United States of America for a couple of weeks, where I encountered the utterly bizarre part of US culture that is American TV. One thing that really struck me were the advertisements for various medicines where half the air time would be telling you how that product would miraculously change your life while the other half of the very same commercial would be detailing how it would comprehensively screw your body up. US TV is terrible. Back over here in Australia we had wonderful* shows when I was growing up and one I remember being shown on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was Monkey.
This 52 episode long series hailed from Japan and was made back in 1978, starring Masaaki Sakai was the titular Monkey (The Monkey King/God). It looked really cheap. The acting was … well, camp would be being kind; think somewhere between Adam West and William Shatner and you probably have the right idea. Yet, much like tinfoil and bubblewrap era Doctor Who, it was strangely entertaining. The plots were formulaic, the villains laughable to look at, the main characters never seemed to actually learn anything (This week … Monkey sulks and runs away from the group, only to learn his lesson and return. And he’ll do it next week. And next week and…) but it did have a certain type of, well, magic that kept you hooked and watching.
At least, it did back then. In researching for this piece, I went back and watched a few classic Monkey episodes and let’s just say that the nostalgia is strong but the reality is somewhat lacking.
Regardless of the nostalgia effect, news broke in 2017 or so that Screen Australia (in partnership with New Zealand) would be taking a crack at rebooting Monkey for a more modern audience. Those strangely entertaining stories but with more modern special effects? Neat! No terrible translations/dubbing? Neat! This could be very promising!
The first warning sign probably should have been the involvement of Australia in making a TV show. I’ll be blunt, the land down under is generally pretty damn terrible at making quality television shows. Oh, we are masters at curating offerings from overseas but making programs ourselves? It’s a long track record of cringe inducing failures. The second warning sign was when the first publicity shots were released:
For the purposes of this column, let us skip over the entire ‘white-washing’ component – it’s simply not a topic I have any interest in exploring right now. There was a bit of a stink regarding that when the publicity shots were released and it’s a truly bludgeoned ex-horse.
Let us concentrate on the cheap looking CGI background, the apparently hastily thrown in fog to try to hide that same background and the costumes that look like a half-drunk LARP group could not be really bothered one session. The one thing that bugs me, however, is that your supposed Monkey King does, in no way, resemble an actual monkey. They got it right in 1978 so how hard could it be to replicate that same approach? The TV show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys ended in 1999, how can this not look any better twenty years later?
News of this reboot was forgotten until this week when a casual flick through Netflix had The New Legends of Monkey appear on my TV screen. Since I found it earlier this week I have sat through four episodes as I have battled a rough bout of ‘flu. Only four? That would be because I can not handle watching a full episode on one stretch, breaks are needed to able to cope with what this show offers the audience.
It probably does not help a great deal that the actor playing the lead (Chai Hansen) isn’t exactly the greatest at his craft; a quick look at his IMDB entry informs me that he was in Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments and that pretty much concludes the case for the prosecution. I would actually go so far as to say that the majority of the main cast is not strong in convincing acting chops – the only exception is Emilie Cocquerel who plays the gender swapped Sandy. This version of Sandy is less of a cannibal and more just insane and Emilie does play up that aspect rather entertainingly well, she could be a talent to watch out for. In case you’re wondering, the rampant womanising ways of classic Pigsy are completely abandoned and he’s just a lazy barge-ass now (and he sounds ready to order some fush and chups).
There is no real world building as such, we’re introduced to terms such as ‘gods’ and ‘demons’ but there is no explanation of who or what they are. The classic series, at least, started off with some episodes set in Heaven to show just why Monkey was punished. Here the audience is shown a random town that is supposedly hard done by demons, though everyone seems reasonably without fear or harm, and told that the world has gone bad and the gods are gone. The demon that first shows up is this:
Hopefully that image gives you a good idea of what I mean by cheap looking and not in the cheesey but fun 1978 way.
Not that everything is bad about this title. Like mentioned, certain actors do a really nice job with what they have and the fight choreography is actually quite strong considering the obviously limited budget. Think of Arrow over on CW and how the fighting there, especially group fights, always look so incredibly staged and fake – The New Legends of Monkey actually has much better choreography than that.
So what is the point of this column, apart from ripping a television show to shreds? Not a lot, to be honest; this show annoyed me and I wanted to vent a little. However, it does serve as yet another example of what modern movie/TV studios need to stop doing; namely stop attempting reboots/remakes of shows that people enjoyed back in the day and concentrate more on original ideas. The success ratio of remakes is not great, for every success such as Hawaii 5-0 or Battlestar Galactica there’s a dozen mind numbing train-wrecks such as MacGyver or Magnum PI.
* For a given value of ‘wonderful’. Mileage will vary.