Every Earth Day Disney puts out a family-friendly animal documentary. In the past, they’ve told us stories about our planet’s oceans, chimpanzees, African cats, and brown bears. This year’s film, Monkey Kingdom focuses on a troop of toque macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka.
The first thing that usually comes to mind when someone thinks ‘wildlife documentary’ is usually those old boring wildlife videos from high school with bland narration about whatever the animals on screen are doing. If you haven’t seen any of the Disneynature series of films then you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise as their films are crafted really well and present the audience with conventions that you’ll get in a regular film. Things such as a protagonist that the movie follows, a plot that tells the story of our protagonist, fun supporting characters, rising tension, and because it’s a Disney movie . . . a happy ending.
Monkey Kingdom focuses on Maya, a pretty well-groomed macaque monkey who’s at the bottom of her troop’s social strata. Like the human world, the toque macaque monkeys of Sri Lanka have a social class structure–the privileged get all the best fruit on the top of fig tree, while those on the bottom (literally the ground) have to scrounge around for food. The film follows Maya as she struggles to find food, raise her young son, and her climb up the troop’s social structure–which helps them to survive.
It’s actually a pretty ingenious endeavor when you think about it. How do you get people to watch what might ordinarily be a boring subject? By getting them into it. Give the audience someone to root for. Someone that they can empathize with. For us, that person (or monkey rather) is Maya. I don’t know how much of Tina Fey’s narration is actually true, but from the footage the producers shot and edited together; they’ve crafted a pretty interesting story that people will sit down to watch.
When the film starts off, Maya is essentially a low income worker with no good prospects and she only stays with her troop because she knows that if she were to leave, she would not be protected by any number of predators that lurk in the surrounding jungle. We see Maya “going to work” every day as she goes out to search for food. We see her as a single mother when she begins to raise her son on her own. And we see her rise to prominence in her tribe when they start to rely on her skills as a searcher and gatherer of food.
There are a number of fun moments in the film–one or two of which I wouldn’t be surprised if they were staged. In one particular scene, Maya and some of the other low-class monkeys raid a human kitchen where a birthday cake with a bunch of different goodies are all perfectly laid out, ripe for the plundering. It’s fun to watch the monkeys go crazy grabbing at all this food, but I found it really hard to believe that the filmmakers just happened upon a scene like that.
Conversely, there’s an emotional sequence in the film when Maya is separated from her son by “The Sisters”, a trio of upper-class female monkeys who treat lower classed monkeys badly because they can. While more heart-wrenching moments like these are few and far between, it does give us a sense that that the animal kingdom mirrors the human kingdom in many similar ways.
If I were to tell you the plot of this story without telling you that it stared monkeys, you might think it’s a halfway decent movie. And for the most part it is. Believe it or not the narration adds a lot to the film. It’s not so much Tina Fey’s personality as it is how the filmmakers edited the footage they shot and developed the narrative for it. Again, who can say exactly how much of what we hear is actually how things happened. At the end of the day, just like in any movie, you’re here to be entertained and that’s exactly what Monkey Kingdom does. It gets you to root for Maya and her family of monkeys.
As in previous years, a portion of opening week box office sales will be donated to an organization that will help the animals and/or environment that the film was shot in. In conjunction with Conservation International, this year’s collected proceeds will go towards protecting habitat across Indonesia, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. Not only do you get to see a movie the entire family can enjoy, but part of the cost you pay for admission will help Maya and other monkeys in the region. Remember, it’s only during the first week of Monkey Kingdom’s engagement (April 17-23).
Monkey Kingdom is now playing in theaters everywhere.
⅗ stars // rated G // 1h 22min