Monkey Magic

What was reviewed: English-dubbed Vols. 2 and 3 (Episodes 4-7)
Released by: Bandai Entertainment 1999
The new TV series made in Japan for the American market, based on "Saiyûki" (the "Journey to the West" legend).
Reviewed by:

Continuing this month's Monkey King 2-For-1 Review Special, Monkey Magic is a newer version of the legend. As a 26-episode TV series, the story has been heavily padded, and is focused less on Son Goku (renamed "Kongo") than on the struggle between several groups: the monkeys, the humans (who oppress the monkeys), the gods of the Celestial Heavens (who also oppress the monkeys, and who are just like a ruling class of humans), and the monsters (the enemies of the Heavens). Kongo is magically born from stone, and after seeing his great powers and rebelliousness, Dearth Voyd, the head monster, tries to convert him to the side of Evil. But Kongo has other plans, and soon the monkeys and the gods are at war.

Kongo's egotistical nature is refreshing; even the gods are stuffy, arrogant, and full of court infighting; only the monkeys are completely pure-hearted. Unfortunately, this leads to a "Smurf village" effect: the hero is shackled with the presence of the big dumb guy, the goof-off, the old wise man, etc., all voice-acted like the stock characters they are. There are fights involving far-out weapons and tactics, which (perhaps because of a lack of action music, perhaps because of the relative lack of violence) don't have the sheer dumb melodrama of something like Dragon Ball Z. In a show made for an American audience, the Buddhist moral comes across more like the standard kid's-TV moral lessons. Only when the ultimate force for good, "the Guardian" (Buddha), shows up do things get cosmic.

The most notable visual effect of Monkey Magic is the animation, which mixes 2D and 3D in every shot, but doesn't always have the budget to pull it off consistently. This often results in flat-looking 2D characters sliding around on generic-looking 3D backgrounds. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. The Celestial Heavens, a palace-garden hanging in outer space, is well-visualized, and Dearth Voyd's headquarters are scary and cyberpunk, but many of the 'normal' landscapes with organic textures look blah. Susumu Matsushita's character design has charm and originality.

I've only seen 4 episodes of Monkey Magic, so I don't know if the plot speeds up or the bad guys and monkeys become more interesting, but I'm curious to see more-though if all you want is to see an animated "Saiyûki", Alakazam the Great is 11 hours shorter. As its publicist informed me, Monkey Magic "isn't anime"-the dramatic style is basically that of an American cartoon. Susumu Matsushita is a good cartoonist, and there is creativity in unexpected places, such as the flashback to Prince Nata's babyhood when he wrestled a dragon and took its spine. But it's a show produced with American prime-time considerations in mind, which is exactly what many fans watch anime to get away from. Check it out for the novelty, support the principle of international coproduction, and see if you end up humming the theme song.

©1998 S. Matsushita Co. B-F/Monkey Magic Productions


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