Once upon a time in the Magic Kingdom, Disney made scads of nature documentaries. Some were released to theatres in the fifties, while others showed up on television as episodes of the “Wonderful World of Disney” series. The tradition went into decline with the cancellation of that show, however, and it was less than a decade ago that it was revived with Disneynature, which has annually released a theatrical film, ordinarily in connection with Earth Day. The latest is this one from writer-director Mark Linfield, which offers a tale about a clan of macaque monkeys living in the forest of Sri Lanka, near some ancient ruins.
As usual, this is not a simple documentary. It employs magnificent footage of the monkeys taken on site, but fashions it—and obviously staged scenes—into a typically anthropomorphic narrative storyline. The plot centers on Maya, a solitary female at the lowest end of the class system among the animals, who has a child by a newcomer called Kumar before he’s exiled from the group. After a time during which Maya must struggle to raise little Kip on her own, Kumar returns and is accepted by the clan’s alpha male. All finally seems happy on the outcropping of rock the monkeys call home, along with some bears, peacocks and a mongoose.
But a rival clan drives them off the rock, forcing them to flee further into the forest. At this point Maya becomes a leader, since her lowly condition had led her to forage for food much further in the past, and she helps the others avoid predators like snakes and lizards before conducting them to a human village, where they adeptly steal eggs, cakes, vegetables and other delicacies before going back to their home and, under Kumar’s leadership, retaking their rocky home. As the film ends, Maya, Kip and Kumar have won newly exalted status in the clan and all is well.
The plot centered on Maya has clearly been superimposed on footage that was collected and, in some cases (as the town sequence, or others pitting the monkeys against predators like a large lizard), carefully arranged, though even there spontaneity must have been the general rule. And much of the narrative—like the class structure in the clan—is told not so much through action as via narration delivered with deadpan panache by Tina Fey. But Maya’s character, along with those of Kumar and Kip, is fashioned adeptly by the filmmakers, and it must be said that with her mop of unruly hair, she strikes a likable, slightly mournful figure the audience can readily identify with. The story generates some suspense, but not so much as to disturb younger viewers, and even the sequences of imminent danger are handled with a light touch to avoid becoming too scary for toddlers. Of course most of the footage is devoted to monkeys acting in simian ways that will delight children, who will recognize themselves in some of the critters’ horseplay (though the moments when Kip is slapped by the elder ladies of the clan could upset some).
One might doubt the wisdom of anthropomorphizing creatures of the wild as extravagantly as “Monkey Kingdom” does, especially when the process is linked to a narrative that essentially boils down to the oppressed but courageous lower class, forced to eat mere scraps, boldly taking power from an effete, over-privileged upper crust that hogs resources for themselves. (Some conservative parents could actually be offended by the perceived political message.) One might also question whether some of the musical choices are too cutesy to have been advisable—particularly the use of the theme song from the old “Monkees” TV series to introduce things. (It increases one’s irritation that what’s played isn’t the actual theme sung by the original members of the group, but a modern effort to replicate it, none too successfully.)
Still, the lead monkeys are such an engaging trio, and the filmmakers are so successful in capturing them in vibrant images, that family audiences are will probably be charmed, if not enthralled, and are unlikely to complain overmuch over such extraneous considerations. The film may be awfully insistent in castigating the privileged position of this kingdom’s royalty, who treat their underlings with an air of utter entitlement, but it plays to what people might like to believe about how eventually innate talent and courage will inevitably rectify social injustices. In that respect “Monkey Kingdom” might be thought as much a fairy tale as most Disney animated features are.