Directors – Wan Laiming, Cheng Tang – 3D Restoration, 2012 (originally Part One, 1961; Part Two, 1964) – China – Cert. N/C PG – 92m
The Jade Emperor assigns the Monkey King to a series of lowly Heavenly positions to keep him out of trouble and mayhem ensues – available to rent online from Friday, February 12th to Wednesday, May 12th in the UK & Ireland as part of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Retro in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021
In a blink and you’ll miss it moment, the Monkey King Sun Wokong breaks out of the rock in which he’s been imprisoned to realise he needs a decent personal weapon and talk the Dragon King out of his prized, giant Golden Ringed Wishing Staff, shrinking it to manageable size. The latter complains to the Jade Emperor, so to keep him out of further trouble Monkey is named Great Sage, Equal Of Heaven and assigned to a series of lowly Heavenly positions in charge of first the stables then the Queen’s peach orchard.
Upon learning that the Queen and her companions are unaware of his title and have failed to invite him to their upcoming banquet, Monkey turns himself invisible, causes the guests to fall asleep and takes the food back to his Fruit And Flower Mountain home on Earth to distribute it among his boy monkey subjects. The Jade Emperor sends serial gods to teach Monkey a lesson and a battle ensues involving Monkey in a series of one-on-one fights.
The second Chinese Animated feature produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio after Princess Iron Fan (Wan Guchan, Chizuko Kanda, Wan Laiming, 1941) put Chinese animation and the Studio that produced it on the map. Adapting three early chapters of Journey To The West it provided the perfect opportunity to employ both the music and movement of Beijing Opera and produce an animated feature very different from anything previously produced anywhere.
This is not, as you might imagine, the unadulterated original film but rather the 1912 ‘restoration’ which apparently speeded up some of the fights, reframed some of the artwork to change the original 4:3 Academy framing to 16:9 Widescreen, converted the images to 3D to give a layered multiplane camera effect to the cartoon sets and completely re-recorded the sound. More info here. Subsequent comments pertain to this ‘restored’ version.
The animation of the character of the Monkey King himself is pretty odd. Disney’s 2D production had been the dominant animation model for the best part of two decades when production began in the late fifties and the way he moves is completely different from that. There’s no attempt to give the character three-dimensional weight and mass with the emphasis much more on a fluidity of movement. This sometimes works well, as for instance when he’s twirling or otherwise manipulating a pole as a weapon of hand-to-hand combat or battling a dog or a snake in mid-air, at others it looks striking and bizarre, reminiscent of animation pioneer Hector Hoppin while at others still it drags.
The battles and fights of the final reel are, however, consistently impressive. They appeared much more so back in the day before fight sequences in martial arts-oriented anime became commonplace; contemporary audiences will feel a sense of deja vu about elements in the construction of these sequences. That said, the wider film’s overall design and visual feel remains largely unique.
The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven 3D is available to rent online from Friday, February 12th to Wednesday, May 12th in the UK & Ireland as part of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Retro in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021.
Free to watch: The History of Shanghai Animation Film Studio