As much fun as a tree full of toque macaques, Monkey Kingdom is arguably the most entertaining of Disneynature’s eight features. But purists will recoil as soon as The Monkees theme enters, and there are times when the story told by narrator Tina Fey probably doesn’t reflect the extraordinary images directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill captured.
Disneynature movies are often described as documentaries, and perhaps nothing in Monkey Kingdom was staged. The film accurately describes the hierarchical social structure of the toque macaque, a species found only in Sri Lanka and endangered because of habitat destruction. Still, some of the camera positions are too good to be serendipitous, and much of the story must have been found in the editing room.
With their moptop hair and bat-like black ears, toque macaques are not the prettiest of monkeys. But cinema thrives on action, and these guys can move — up a tree, across the ground and even under water. They’re fast, if only occasionally furious.
The narrative overlaid on the long-lens footage highlights a female macaque the movie calls Maya. She lives in Polonnaruwa, a city in north-central Sri Lanka that was abandoned by humans in the 13th century. The ruins, stupas and giant Buddha statues give the movie a ghostly human context unusual in Disneynature tales.
Maya is not part of the local macaque aristocracy, and so lacks access to the best of the monkey town’s fruits, bugs, leaves and other foodstuffs. Her struggle for nourishment intensifies after an off-camera encounter with a young interloper, Kumar, leaves her with a baby, Kip.
The new mom’s perpetual quest for dinner leads to some remarkable moments. In one, all the monkeys feast during the single day of the year when the air is full of winged termites. In another, the macaques dive into a pond, foraging for seed pods as fish glide by. The underwater videocams are all-too-ideally located to record the graceful aquatic moves.
Also in the pond is a 7-foot-long monitor lizard, one of the principal menaces in a forest that also houses deer, peacocks, elephants, leopards, sloth bears and a wily mongoose who — according to Fey’s slyly delivered narration — frustrates the young monkeys by refusing to play.
The biggest threat, however, is a rival macaque troop that attacks and drives off Maya, Kip and the rest. The dispossessed monkeys head to an unidentified city, where they brazenly rob street vendors of edibles. They also, in one of the most amusing sequences, toy with an amiable dog.
Are these city-raiding imps actually the same macaques we met earlier? It’s impossible to say, but the voiceover’s suggestion that Maya’s band had previously been unfamiliar with humans is a fib. Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, often visited by tourists.
Maya and Kumar eventually reunite, and their status improves, although not without some violence. Deaths and the most intense battling occur off-screen, but the implications could be too much for younger kids.
The film also may raise some touchy questions about sex, and sexual stereotypes. Fey describes Kumar as a “hunky monkey,” and every scene that involves reproduction is scored to funk or reggae. Apparently, Sri Lankan wildlife mates to Africa-rooted rhythms.
A Taylor Swift end-credits ditty is also a miscalculation, but Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is deft and less sugary than the birthday cake the macaques consume in one slapstick scene.
Monkey Kingdom charms because of such unscripted (if perhaps not unstaged) anarchy. The sort-of documentary is best when the anthropomorphic narration is upstaged by unmediated monkeyshines.