In the mythical, part-CGI setting of The New Legends of Monkey, time and place are a bit of a moving feast.
It may look like TV China, or at least TV China made in New Zealand, but the central character orphan Tripitaka (Luciane Buchanan) sports an American accent. She is surrounded, initially, by other American accents emanating from wise Chinese monks, until New Zealand and even cockney British characters are added to the soundscape.
For the juvenile audience to which this new series is directed, it’s hard to escape the notion that everything is not what it seems.
To be fair The New Legends of Monkey is not looking to reboot the cult Japanese series Monkey. This ABC / Netflix production is based on the 16th Century Chinese fable Journey to the West (as was Monkey itself). There have been some concessions for a modern audience, notably Tripitaka becoming a teenage girl instead of a young monk and local god Sha Wujing aka Sandy, also changing gender to female.
Tripitaka, in her quest to thwart demons and find her parents, befriends sidekicks Wizard of Oz-like. One is the Monkey king himself (Chai Hansen), a muscly pop-star like expert in martial arts and comedy, the roguish Pigsy (Josh Thomson) who carries a mean pitchfork, and water god Sandy (Emilie Cocquerel) who would probably be right at home as one of Lady Gaga’s little monsters.
Across the opening 3 episodes (strung together as a “telemovie”), the four will battle a platinum-haired demon who is a cross between David Bowie in Labyrinth and Orlando Bloom in Lord of the Rings. Various martial arts quests will cross with jeopardy and comedy as Tripitaka clings fast to the ancient proverb that “Hope Must Never Die.”
Yet there is little tension underneath the theatrics and obvious work that has gone into the production (the lighting is particularly good), and the opening chapter stretches the friendship somewhat. Whilst Buchanan and Hansen shoot for sincerity in their performances, they are inadequately matched by some rather wet villains and distracting supporting cast. The cacophony of accents does little to help and a synth music soundtrack is another vanilla touch.
The whole production reeks of trying to go broad, and presumably for an American audience, at the expense of the source material. Questions should be asked about whether ABC and Screen Australia are putting Australian voices and Australian stories on the screen for child audiences (the latter has been particularly strident about maintaining Aussie accents). At least Dance Academy and Nowhere Boys are true blue in their DNA.
I guess this might trigger some martial arts interest amongst the audience, but The New Legends of Monkey does little for Chinese culture. In its shorter form it will presumably offer a more snackable treat, but so far it just made me long for the kooky comedy of the ’70s Japanese version on a fraction of the budget.
The New Legends of Monkey begins 6pm Sunday January 28 on ABC ME.