In 2015, Anthony Stacchi earned his first Oscar nomination when The Boxtrolls, a splendid stop-motion animated comedy from Laika, was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. Yet, it would be nearly a decade before he released a follow-up. According to Stacchi, the nine-year gap between The Boxtrolls and his new film, Netflix's The Monkey King, wasn't intentional. "It wasn't for a lack of trying," the director says with a laugh. "After The Boxtrolls, I developed a few other projects that didn't end up going anywhere, so I went off and did other things."
In the interim, Stacchi kept busy working as a storyboard artist on projects such as 2019's Missing Link and Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film this year. "My whole career has really been about directing something and then storyboarding on someone else's project and then directing again," he says. "I've always gone back and forth, and I think there's a lot of people in animation — especially feature animation — who do that while they try to get their next film going."
Stacchi now returns with The Monkey King, a 3D animated adventure inspired by the Ming Dynasty epic, Journey to the West. The movie follows the titular mythical Monkey (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) as his quest to become an immortal god puts him in direct conflict with countless demons and deities, including the narcissistic Dragon King (Bowen Yang). Visually and narratively, The Monkey King has little in common with The Boxtrolls. Nonetheless, Stacchi reveals that making The Monkey King was a bit of a full-circle moment for him.
"Years ago, I'd tried to develop a Journey to the West adaptation at other studios," recalls the filmmaker. "I read the book originally 20 years ago, and I just loved it. I've always loved the folktale. I think it's hilarious and kind of magnificent." More than anything, Stacchi says that he remains in awe of how contemporary The Monkey King's source material still feels. "It's a 500-year-old folk tale, but the tone of it is incredibly modern. It has a very contemporary antihero, and the story is really, really funny."
The film also gave Stacchi the chance to work with one of his favorite personal heroes: The legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow, who serves as an executive producer on The Monkey King. Tonally, the film owes a debt to Chow's surreal Hong Kong comedies, a genre that has provided inspiration for Stacchi throughout his career. "One of my first jobs out of college was in Taipei working on Saturday morning cartoons. Some days it would be really rainy, and I would have nothing else to do on my one day off a week, so I would just wander into a movie theater," he reflects.
"I started seeing Hong Kong movies that way, and I was like, 'What the hell is this?!' It was just the most fantastic thing. I became a huge fan of those Hong Kong movies from the mid-'80s and '90s," Stacchi says, "and when I ended up back in San Francisco, I kept seeking those movies out. That's how I first got to know Stephen Chow."
A.frame: This is your first feature film in nine years. After The Boxtrolls, what led you to The Monkey King?
I was really making the rounds in L.A., which I do periodically, pitching original and new ideas and finding out about projects that needed a director. In 2018, I met [Monkey King producer] Peilin Chou. I pitched her a few ideas, and at the time, she was looking for Asian-inspired films. She was still working at Pearl Studio, so I decided to pitch her some ideas that might fit into what she was looking for. She eventually mentioned that she was working on a movie based on Journey to the West. When she told me that, I was like, "Oh, wow. I've tried so many times to develop that." That's where we really came together, and I started working with her on it. Shortly afterward, I met Stephen Chow, who had been attached as an executive producer on the project for a while.
Obviously, The Monkey King looks very different than The Boxtrolls. How did you decide on the film's specific look and animation style?
Each film sort of carries its style with it. With The Boxtrolls, the artwork of Alan Snow's novel, Here Be Monsters!, made the style of the film seem pretty clear. The Dickensian feeling of the book and the influence of David Lean's movies made it easy to decide on the visual language for The Boxtrolls. British cinema really inspired the look of that film. Journey to the West, meanwhile, has been made into a lot of different kinds of movies over the years, including big live-action, special effects extravaganzas in Hong Kong and mainland China, and it's been done in 2D animation before. To do it for a Western audience for the first time, I decided that the story is already strange enough. It's got a talking monkey in armor wandering around ancient China fighting the gods, and the pantheon of gods is a mixture of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist gods. It's already an incredibly strange story, you know?
There's this great saying among animation directors: If everything's weird, nothing's weird. You have to be careful in a movie like this, which is already strange, to make sure you give the audience a way into it. So, we always thought that we'd give the film a more traditional, realistic look and then let the weirdness play out on top of that.
Did the film's look evolve at all over the course of its production?
Well, when I originally met with Kyle McQueen, our production designer, we had a very different version of The Monkey King's story in mind than what we ended up making. It skewed a lot younger and was very gentle in its look. As we developed the story further with the folks at Netflix, though, we took Stephen's notes into account more — namely, to make sure we didn't take the meat out of the story. He rightly noted that we couldn't take the awkwardness, arrogance, and selfishness out of Monkey's character, and that we had to keep it a spiritual journey, which meant that Buddha had to be present. The more we incorporated those notes and ideas into the film, the more its look began to evolve and be inspired a little bit more by Chinese brush paintings. We also brought a whole new art department onto the film, which took another pass at our character designs. It ended up being one of those films where the whole process of making it really revealed the way that it needed to look.
The film maintains a very rapid pace, and it packs a lot of plot into its runtime. How difficult was it to navigate finding the right pace from start to finish?
It has to have a rhythm, because if it's relentless all the way through it can be very difficult to sit with. You have to be careful that every moment is not as important as every other moment. There can't be so much information all the time that if anyone misses something, they'll be lost. A lot of the inspiration for the film's energy, frankly, came from working with Stephen Chow and looking at the tone of his movies, which can be very surreal. You know, just when you think you're in a gangster movie from the 1930s, he'll throw a musical sequence at you, and then you'll find yourself with a whole bunch of characters in a tiny village who all happen to be kung fu masters and you're suddenly in a period epic that also feels like a soap opera at the same time. That's the Stephen Chow tone we really love, and working with him as our executive producer was amazing.
How instrumental was he in the film's development and creative processes?
Stephen really became famous for playing the Monkey King in a couple of movies, so he was very much the guardian of the character while we were making our film. At the same time, he used to joke that I knew the original folktale better than him and tell me that nobody in China really knows the folktale. He'd say that they all know Monkey, but not necessarily the story. It's a bit like here where people know who Don Quixote is, but they've never read the book. So, sometimes Stephen would say, "Tony, I know the folktale says this, but the Monkey everyone knows would actually do this."
For example, if you make a Sherlock Holmes movie, people don't have to know the source material to know who Holmes is. They're already familiar with his idiosyncrasies and personality, even though they don't necessarily know the exact book you're pulling your story from or even if it comes from a book. Peilin used to say that in China, you could choose Chapter 38 of Journey to the West, where Monkey fights the White Bone Demon, and make a movie entirely about that because everybody in Asia would get it without any additional story material. They just know who Monkey is. In the case of this movie, we really had to pack in Monkey's entire origin story, and it still only covers the first seven chapters of Journey to the West, which is really just the introduction of Monkey and the first half-step of his spiritual journey.
Did you ever feel an impulse to try and fit more of his story into the movie?
No. Stephen would always say, "You can't turn Monkey into a good guy by the end. He can't learn all of his lessons. It takes the entirety of Journey to the West for that to happen. You can't do it all in one movie. He can only take his first step." So, we really just took all the things we felt we could pack into the film and hit the ground running with an 82-minute runtime. Of course, when we got to the end of that process, we then begged Netflix for an extra five minutes to go back in and pick moments throughout the film where the audience could feel like they could take a breath. Even that wasn't enough, though. We had to make some brutal cuts to scenes and moments that we didn't want to lose, just so that we could open up little sections here and there to breathe. Otherwise, the film was going too fast.
We'd watch filmmakers who are the masters of that kind of rhythm, like Hayao Miyazaki, who can figure out how to go 100 miles an hour through a chase scene and then give you a scene where characters are lying on their backs looking up at the clouds. Filmmakers like him know how to clear your palate before going into another crazy scene, and you never feel exhausted or confused by that rhythm throughout those films.
As someone who has been working in animation for so long, how do you feel about the current state of the medium? What's your perspective on how much more diverse and experimental Hollywood's animated films have become?
There's been such a demand for content that inevitably the world has just opened up more to stories like Journey to the West. This story has been on so many studio development lists for years, but people have always curiously tried to do it as "Journey to the West in space" or a steampunk version of it or whatever. I've always thought, "It's a weird enough story. You don't have to add all these other elements to it." Now, the industry has really opened itself up to so much more diverse content.
Part of what's happening in animation is that studios have allowed animated stories to evolve. I've witnessed that gradual change as I've gone along. When I was doing rock videos and TV commercials in the mid-'90s, I had zero interest in animated features. I admired the craft. I loved how they were done, but they were always very traditional kids' stories with songs and stuff like that. It wasn't until Toy Story and The Nightmare Before Christmas came out that it felt like animated movies could be more sophisticated story-wise. They began to go into areas and ideas that were more interesting to me as an adult. Slowly, as time has gone on, that's only become more and more true, and the medium has really just exploded in the last few years. There's a real desire within the animation community right now to tell more complex stories.
By Alex Welch