Monkey Kingdom is the sixth film from Disney’s Save the Planet (!) arm Disneynature, but shamefully it is my first foray into their universe. Luckily for me this one has an especially appetizing premise as it promises a solid 80 minutes in the company of the macaques who live in the forest and ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. It is a culture and a history that I know absolutely nothing about but that made the visuals here and the journey they provided all the more thrilling. It is willfully aimed at the youngest audience possible which is understandable, perhaps even admirable, but not necessarily sustainable after looking at their box office numbers for the opening weekend.
What they are selling here, more than anything, is extraordinary footage of the monkeys in their natural habitat along with an elementary lesson on their behavior and social order. This being Disney they do find a way to superimpose a quintessential Disney story on top of it all about a young mother wallowing away at the bottom of the pecking order who, through perseverance and a strong belief in herself, overcomes massive adversity to climb (literally) to the top of the fig tree. Other members of the animal kingdom are on hand to provide a dash of variety. I was especially taken by the scenes with the monitor lizard as he provided some desperately needed bad-assery which was refreshing because everything else here is so nauseatingly cute. The film crew that made this film possible is quite obviously the MVP here as they clearly but in tons of hard work and churned out something close to art. Realizing that makes it all the more disheartening when you see just how overly edited their footage is and how dishonest the finished product feels.
What ultimately does this movie in is that overwhelming sense that I was being lied to. Yes, I am aware that entertaining children was their number one priority so I really can’t complain about the monkeys being given adorable names or the hacky writing that was provided for Tina Fey’s voiceover narration. What I will complain about are scenes such as the raid of the nearby birthday party for a local child. As it is presented the monkeys storm the gates of the school, trash the classroom, devour the cake and escape by the skin of their teeth. Fey delivers a sardonic one-liner and hilarity ensues. The problem is that they are asking us to accept a narrative in which these naïve teachers set up the party, leave the cake fully exposed and then clear out just long enough for the vandals and the film crew to slip in and capture the ransacking. Is this the first time the teachers have been so lax about monkey security or is it just the first time the monkeys decided to help themselves to free birthday cake? I got a similar feeling watching supposedly oblivious vendors at a street fair who are aware of the film crew across the street but unaware of the monkeys robbing them blind just a few feet above their heads.
I hate to drag the gold standard of nature docs into this argument but Disneynature was borne in part because of the success of Planet Earth and this entry shows that they still have some work to do. My favorite part of that series was always the last ten minutes when they pulled back the curtain and showed us the logistical hurdles they had to clear to make the episode possible. I know the youngsters in the audience probably wouldn’t stand for something so snooze-inducing but why not roll it out during the end credits? They tease it here but all they really some is some dude standing in a lake with a video camera and some other guy commenting on how long it took to get a particular shot. I also am aware that my overarching thesis that these movies, which are not for me, should include more of what I want is probably a bit distasteful. But I do genuinely question if the half-truths being presented here are necessarily the healthiest thing for today’s kids. Scrubbing the sex and violence from nature is one thing but straight up staging scenes feels a bit icky to me.
Directors: Mark Linfield & Alastair Fothergill
Producers: Mark Linfield & Alastair Fothergill
Notable Cast: Tina Fey