With a box office gross of $153 million, “Monkey King: Hero Is Back” became the biggest-ever animated movie in China when it was released last summer — only passed by this year’s “Zootopia” and “Finding Dory.”
But adapting the film, which is an entry for best animated feature at the 89th Academy Awards, for U.S. audiences was trickier, especially because there’s no correlation between the length of time and mouth movements it takes to say the same thing in English and Chinese.
“How do you take a sentence that’s this long in English and this long in Chinese and make it fit the lips?” Ned Lott, the film’s English-language voice director (while spreading his arms out for emphasis) asked during a Q&A with TheWrap Managing Editor Thom Geier following a Thursday screening in Los Angeles.
One creative way they did that for the porcine character Pigsy was by adding in extra snorts and squeaks to fill mouth-movement time when the Chinese dialogue was longer than its English equivalent.
The film follows legendary Chinese mythological figure the Monkey King, or Sun Wukong, who was trapped in a mountain for 500 years before a young boy, Liuer, accidentally frees him. With encouragement from Liuer, the Monkey King saves a village from evil trolls.
Worldwide megastar Jackie Chan voices the titular Monkey King in the English-language version, and Lott brought in other well-known voice actors such as James Hong, who voiced Mr. Ping in the “Kung Fu Panda” films and handled Old Monk in “Monkey King,” and Roger Craig Smith, the voice of “Sonic the Hedgehog” and Pigsy. Newcomer Kannon Kurowski, who attended TheWrap’s Q&A, voiced Liuer – beating out a Chinese actor for the role.
Hong said Old Monk’s relationship with Liuer was a universal story that should connect with audiences that have never heard of the Monkey King – which Hong said he grew up listening to stories about from his ancestors.
“It’s something for the Caucasian audience to identify with,” he said. “If they can’t identify with the Monkey King, they can identify with the old man and the kid.”
And although the Monkey King is a classic Chinese tale, Hong insinuated that the oddball, troublemaking nature of the Monkey King compared with a certain loose-lipped U.S. politician.
“The Monkey King was always getting in trouble,” he said. “In a way, he should be a god of America.”
“Monkey King: Hero Is Back” exclusively premiered on DirecTV on May 28 as part of the pay-TV provider’s Cinema Exclusives program, before hitting U.S. theaters July 29.