Monkey Kingdom Directors: Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill
Narrator: Tina Fey
Rated G | 82 Minutes
Release Date: April 17, 2015
Lions and sharks and bears, oh my! Disneynature’s collection of films have chronicled the stories of these creatures — no central focus on tigers just yet, I’m afraid — but until now, this documentary label had yet to venture into a society dominated by toque macaque monkeys.
Practically every April brings a new Disneynature film to theaters, and Disneynature’s Monkey Kingdom embodies the series’ awe, compassion and discovery in a neatly wrapped (just under an) hour-and-a-half experience. It’s entertaining, yes, and as documentaries aim to inform, you will indeed walk away learning many, many fascinating facts that you can bring up at your next party.
You thought modern living for humans was tough? Absolutely, we exist on a planet designed to have social hierarchies, where sometimes we feel lower on the totem pole. Just wait until you witness the order constructed by the toque macaques in Sri Lanka. Maya, our brave and loving protagonist, belongs on the bottom rung of her fellow group of monkeys. Inhabiting Castle Rock, a majestic structure once made and occupied by humans, the monkeys possess a special place in the middle of the Polonnaruwa landscape. The ruler of this kingdom is Raja. No, not Jasmine’s tiger from Aladdin — who, by the way, has his name spelled differently — but rather the alpha male. Raja, accompanied by several females, called “sisters,” shape the order of their society. Essentially, it’s like HBO’s Big Love, but without humans and the United States, instead substituting monkeys and the tropical environment of Sri Lanka.
But the caste system of toque macaques is no joking matter. Maya and her ancestors have always existed on the bottom. This does not represent merely a figure of speech, but rather where she and her family eat, sleep, and jump around. On the tops of the branches of these beautiful trees are Raja, the sisters, and their offspring. Descending down the tree, the fruit is less ripe and the monkeys find it harder to stay warm during those frequent rainy days. Poor Maya. She knows she cannot disrupt the balance, as attempting to snag a piece of more favorable fruit could result in a slapping. We see that a few times. Though it becomes clear that certain species have members at different ends of the scale — whether it be the alpha or the subservient one — the narrative approach elicits viewers to feel more compassion for the underdog.
Sharing this story requires a thoughtful and, at times, humorous voice. Tina Fey, having joined the Disney family with her recent role in Muppets Most Wanted, provides a solid tone in conveying Maya’s challenges. Fey interjects with some lines that may make viewers smile, but clearly the younger audience is considered, given the limitations placed on the material. But this makes perfect sense, as this is a documentary first and foremost. Fey does her job well.
The pacing of the film changes as soon as Maya meets Kumar, a stud from outside Monkey Kingdom who tries to integrate into the society. Initially, he lacks luck, finding himself forced out. Yet his impact remains, as Maya soon gives birth to his son, Kip. The trials and tribulations of Maya and Kip define much of Monkey Kingdom. Like African Cats and Bears, this parent-and-child storyline ushers in warm feelings. A mother’s commitment to raise her baby to its fullest potential reaches beyond species. Kip clings onto Maya, seeking her warmth and milk to sustain his livelihood. To accomplish this, Maya must take extreme means. At one point she ventures into a monitor lizard-occupied pond to retrieve some delicious seed pods. Daring, absolutely. But this is not without its risks. One of her monkey contemporaries meets its doom during this same seed odyssey.
Yes, Monkey Kingdom does not shy away from the harsh realities that punctuate what appears to embody a paradise. One climactic moment depicts an all-out war between the residents of Castle Rock and an invading group of monkeys, led by the ruthless Lex, identifiable by his crooked-looking jaw. We follow Maya and Kip’s journey away from the safety of their home to uncharted regions. These perilous moments have weight because we connect with the toque macaques. Species differences aside, the film paints clear parallels between the social and family structures of these monkeys and humans. Some monkeys are single parents. Others exist in royalty. All face the same dangers. Sometimes role reversals occur, as when Maya’s “street smarts” aid her superiors as they navigate the treacherous jungle beyond Castle Rock.
The cinematography, much as you would expect, is simply breathtaking. The end credits portion shows the filmmaking methods of capturing the imagery. The most exciting scenes show our toque macaque friends swimming underwater, leaping across storefronts in a Sri Lanka city and literally crashing in on a child’s birthday party in a village. One of my favorite moments portrays these monkeys interacting with a dog, none too pleased to have these little primates jumping on and off it. On the other hand, tender moments come through every so often. Maya nurturing Kip is precious. Watching the monkeys feast on termites during a special period of time looks both stunning and satisfying, as we are aware of the hunger that monkeys like Maya experience.
Harry Gregson-Williams, whose orchestration work sometimes becomes shadowed by the films he scores (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia, and others), perfectly incorporates his music into Monkey Kingdom. His tracks complement the mood of the monkeys, whether playful, tense, or wondrous. Much like how George Fenton’s musicality was a nice fit for Bears, Gregson-Williams’ work for Monkey Kingdom both enhances the picture and stands alone on its own quite effectively.
As with each other Disneynature production released in U.S. theaters, tickets purchased within the first week help support various conservation projects around the world. An impressive promo that precedes the film (featured above) shows the impact of this film label. Continuing to support these productions through watching them and sharing them with others benefits both the planet and your intellect. I am confident many of the tidbits I learned about toque macaques will stick with me long after publishing this article. If anything, the riveting caste system will remain in mind when thinking about certain species of monkeys.
Monkey Kingdom swings right into my good place of why I enjoy going to the movies. If I step out of the theater smiling and feeling good about what I just watched, all the better. The Disneynature method of anthropomorphizing these creatures does not reduce the film’s tone, nor its magnitude. We all exist on Earth. Mutual understanding can sustain these animals’ future and we possess that responsibility in how we utilize our resources and purchasing power. Monkey Kingdom reminds us that families come in all shapes, sizes and species. Documentaries also come in all varieties. This non-condescending, colorful and creative approach in showing the habitats of toque macaques can lift any spirit and encourage you to get set for Disneynature’s forthcoming Born in China.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.