In biological sciences, the urge to anthropomorphize your subject –wherein you ascribe human qualities and behaviors to something non-human- presents a constant threat to objective research. Just as many conspiracy theories are tempting for their A to B explanation of complicated events, using man-made logic to understand the actions of an animal can seem like shrewd deduction. The risk comes with eliminating the many other factors, known or unknown, that more accurately, though not more simply, explain data that your brain naturally wants to fit into a tidy little narrative. If it were judge on its merits as a nature documentary, Monkey Kingdom, the latest from Disneynature, would be a failure.
Luckily, as with other nature docs from the Magic Kingdom’s enviro-friendly sub-brand (the Greenhouse of Mouse, if you will), Monkey Kingdom isn’t presenting research, or looking to do much educating. It’s a highly polished montage culled from months of footage shot in the jungles of Sri Lanka, a troop of toque macaques being the subject of interest. A few principle primates are given names, and selective editing, along with a narrator (Tina Fey), give the film the illusion of a story. By projecting emotions and motivations onto the macaques, natural life is made to imitate art.
The hierarchical structure of macaque society lends itself well to Monkey Kingdom’s underdog narrative, as the caste system dictating monkey chain-of-command divides the “characters” between haves and have-nots. Maya, the Fey-described heroine of the story, is a low-rung female of the troop. With Raja, the alpha male jock, and a triplet of pampered females (so of the Mean Girls clique mold they’re nicknamed “The Sisterhood”) calling the shots, poor Maya has to scrape by to survive the lackadaisical, but sometimes dangerous day-to-day life of a macaque. Things only get tougher when the roguish male, Kumar, knocks up Maya, then makes like a banana and splits, leaving our girl to raise baby Kip on her own.
Initially, the tone of Monkey Kingdom is as light as the narrative holding all the footage together, with effective and funny narration from Fey providing the viewer all the information they need to contextualize one form of monkeying around from another. As with other Disneynature products, Monkey Kingdom’s aims to entertain through sheer adorability, the wide-eyed and nimble macaques being just the main course of cuddly creatures to “aww” at. Personally, I was partial to the macaques’ geographical neighbors and phylogenetic cousins, the shiftless and fuzz-faced gray langur.
The quality of the footage captured by directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill is often very impressive, the camera seemingly no more than a few feet away from the macaques much of the time, and placed with surprising versatility. Underwater photography and shot-reverse-shot angles from inside small nooks and crannies give Monkey Kingdom a good sense of flow, but also a greater sense of artifice. That a nature documentary could ever become too plot-heavy is a strange thing to suggest, but the more it tries to force a narrative arc for Maya and company, the more contrived the editing and direction becomes. It’s one thing to have the theme song from The Monkees pipe in for a montage, and another entirely for the film to present a children’s birthday party crashed by the monkeys as some kind of coincidence (especially when that party has some conspicuous Disney merch on display).
Not that any child or monkey-loving adult will mind all that much. The Disneynature films are essentially curated YouTube playlists of animal clips, with a familiar celebrity voice attached to provide a sense of continuity. In its nature state, the footage from rural and urban Polonnaruwa makes for a visually engrossing experience, but even 81 minutes of undisturbed beauty might lose your interest without a little heart thrown in for good measure. Monkey Kingdom is edutainment second, fluff filmmaking first – but, boy, is it some nice looking fluff.