Believe it or not, Japan was actually the first country to adapt the beloved Chinese fantasy tale Journey to the West to television in the 1970s with the cult hit Monkey (China would not produce its own television telling until the 1980s). In fact, the hit 2006 Japanese drama Saiyuki is the fifth version of the story on television. On the heels of the drama's success, Fuji Television simply skipped the "4-hour special episode" step and poured a rather extravagant amount of money into the feature-length film Monkey Magic. To enhance authenticity, the crew even took the production to China, though only for a week's worth of shooting.
The best part about Monkey Magic is that unlike recent drama adaptations, it works as an isolated story, provided that one knows the basic background of Journey to the West already. In short, a monk, Tripitaka/Sanzo Hoshi (played by Bayside Shakedown actress Eri Fukatsu), leads his three disciples - Cho Hakkai/Pigsy (Atsushi Ito), Sa Gojou/Friar Sand (Teruyoshi Uchimura), and the misbehaving monkey king Son Goku (Smap member Shingo Katori) - on a journey to India to retrieve a sacred scroll. Along the way, they get into adventures and fight different goblins that might jeopardize their trip. This time, the four make a stop at a desert town called the Tiger Kingdom, which has turned into a barren wasteland after the arrival of powerful demons Silver Horn and Golden Horn. When they arrived, the two demons turned the king and queen into turtles, leaving the young Princess Reimi to rule by herself.
To the dismay of the three disciples, the kind monk agrees to help Reimi undo the spell on her parents. This involves a trek to some snowy mountains, past a rolling rock out of nowhere (a staple of most fantasy adventure films by now), a whale-like sea creature, and finally a long climb up a mountain. Eventually, loyalties will be tested, hidden agendas will be revealed, magical powers will be unleashed, and Son Goku will remain very, very annoying.
While some fans of the original tale may simply dismiss this version based on principle alone ("A woman as Tripitaka?! Blasphemy!"), the feature film version of Saiyuki is actually fairly entertaining family fun. That only applies, however, if you can overlook one of the most annoying interpretations of Son Goku in memory. I'm not entirely sure who's to blame for the fact that Son Goku has been reduced to a child-like creature who constantly screams everything he says, but since Shingo Katori has played such childish characters before (horrible images of Nin-Nin come to mind), all signs point to him. Here, the actor overacts to an extreme, over-expressing every possible emotion and over-speaking every line. Sometimes it works, but,most of the time it just grates.
Fortunately, Monkey Magic doesn't rely on the charms of Shingo Katori to succeed. Director Kensaku Sawada and screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto (both of whom worked on the TV series) create a well-paced adventure that entertains with amusing deadpan and slapstick comedy. However, the supposedly magical powers possessed by the main characters only conveniently appear halfway through the film (Effective in building anticipation for special effects? Yes. Make much sense? No), and the contrived attempts to work in lessons about friendship and teamwork with monologues are as tired on film as they are in dramas.
In fact, for a fantasy adventure with powerful goblins, Monkey Magic is quite lacking on the action front. The film does carry a manic, yet irrelevant energy throughout, but a lot of it is spent on silly humor rather than action. There's an extended chase sequence between Son Goku and Silver Horn over a certain magical orb that's as undeniably fun as it is silly, but that's about all the effort (and seemingly most of the budget) spent on action. Despite the presence of characters who can move at super speed, extend a spear to unnaturally long lengths, and fly on clouds, the action design in Monkey Magic is slightly on the disappointing side, especially when the finale simply hinges on Son Goku's ability to pull knives out of his body.
However, what's left is still a highly entertaining family fun. (Though never did I expect that I would call a film with the aforementioned knife-pulling scene "entertaining family fun".) Even though the film's ending opens itself up for a sequel, it may not have the legs to become the "Harry Potter"-sized franchise producer Chihiro Kameyama claims it will be. After all, how many isolated adventures can the team write before the stories and the characters get tiresome? Nevertheless, Kameyama does know what satisfies audiences, and even though Monkey Magic is not an entirely successful blockbuster (Shingo Katori: Use your "indoor" voice), it's not hard to see why it succeeded at the box office. It's a simple, commercial calculation that works.
(Kevin Ma 2008)