Review: Monkey! – Unseen Episodes (1979)

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Cast: , , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

It’s the Year of the Pig! Chinese New Year is always a jolly time around Heroic Cinema parts, as it’s the one time of the year you can see lion dancing without having to load Once Upon a Time in China 3 into the DVD player. It’s also a time for Lunar New Year comedies, red packets, and tasty treats.

But let’s back up a second and focus on the porcine aspect: I mean, what better way to mark the occasion than a nod to one of China’s great heroes? I’m not talking about the Great Sage Equal of Heaven; today, give it up for Pigsy.

H-C old-timers may recall me yabbering on about the DVD release of Monkey, and how, 25 years later, the show still kicks more you-know-whats than a dozen Dragonballs. Part of the show’s appeal is the sterling job done by the British voice-over cast, in particular Peter Woodthorpe as Pigsy – his constant self-aggrandising and lustful free-association is one of the show’s many highlights. Normally around here at H-C we tend to reach for our revolver when anyone says “dubbing”, but somehow, in 1979 the BBC got Monkey just right.

Flash forwards then to 2004, and on to the meat of this review: hardened monkey-heads will know that 39 episodes of Monkey were dubbed and broadcast here in Australia, but 13 episodes were never aired. At last, the powers of the sun and the moon all worked once more, and the original voice cast were reassembled to reprise their roles and bring these long-lost episodes to the screen.

Siren have unleashed the missing Monkeys as part of their sterling line-up, and you’ll find ’em on Volumes 14 through 17. But, before you start whistling up your cloud, get ready for some potential disappointment.

Fact one, don’t be thinking for a second “Ah, at last they’ll reach India!” In fact, they don’t even get any closer. Thing is, the missing 13 episodes were part of the Japanese 26-part second season, and in the continuity, they actually appear right throughout; the “last” episode of Season 2 was indeed broadcast in the 1970s, and appears at the end of Volume 13.

Instead, the episodes here were passed over for dubbing at the time as the BBC had only commissioned 13 eps, and these ones fell off the short list due to them either having mildly dodgy themes or, and it’s sadly true, they’re simply Not That Good. We’ve had the best of Monkey folks, what we’re talking here are leftovers. Compound that with the usual problems with Season 2 (Tonpei Hidari replaces Toshiyuki Nishida as the second Pigsy, and what’s up with that dumb horse character?), and you’re destined for double disappointment.

Things get a little worse in the dubbing department. David Collings, Gareth Armstrong and Maria Warburg flawlessly reprise their roles as Monkey, Sandy and Tripitaka respectively, so much so it’s like they had never been away (in Warburg’s case, she most certainly had been, as she had retired from acting altogether!). Frank Duncan had passed away in the intervening years, so his distinctive voice as the narrator is missing; his replacement Burt Kwouk, while actually Asian (nice move by the producers), just doesn’t have the same tone.

But, the biggest downfall, and it pains me to say it, is that 25 years is a long time in show business; so, all of the vigour and cheekiness that Peter Woodthorpe used to bring Pigsy to life in 1979 was pretty much gone by 2004. The same effect can be heard if you listen to Clint Eastwood’s overdubs in the special edition of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; voices age, and there’s no getting around it. Sadly, Woodthorpe actually died a month after completing work on the project, so I feel pretty low for dissing his last work; but my ears don’t lie. It just ain’t the same, folks. Pigsy’s past it.

So, if you’re a Monkey maniac and have seen all 39 episodes so many times you’re desperate for more, get into it. If you’re a semi-maniac or maybe just curious, then I’d recommend grabbing Volume 17 and giving it a go, as it has an interesting 30-minute documentary on the series and the new recording sessions. But, for everyone else, the old rockenroll adage definitley applies: their stuff is better than their new stuff.

5 disappointing kung fu brawls down memory lane out of 10.
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