Are you among the many parents who find it difficult hitting that sweet spot when picking a movie the whole family can enjoy? Your younger preteen still favors animation while those closer to driving age gravitate towards action and comic book extravaganzas. Your spouse likes older action and crime dramas, and you tend to be drawn towards comedies and romantic dramas.
While there is nothing in the world that could be considered a perfect compromise to this dilemma, “Monkey Kingdom” comes awfully close. Remember the time you took everyone to see “March of the Penguins,” and everyone loved it? Think of this as that movie taking place on an island in the Indian Ocean, instead of the South Pole.
Although it releases only one movie per year (always close to Earth Day), the Disney offshoot documentary studio, Disneynature, always delivers the goods. Geared towards children and families, they can be appreciated, if not thoroughly enjoyed, by anyone. “Monkey Kingdom” is the eighth such production in the series and is arguably the most satisfying of the bunch so far.
As with the other projects, “Monkey Kingdom” is a mix of the IMAX-produced nature flicks from the ’90s and virtually every “National Geographic” TV special. The photography is beyond impeccable and the narration here by Tina Fey is at once warm, edgy, droll, and clever and lends the story unexpected but welcomed bite.
Opening the movie with the theme from “The Monkees” TV show also lets us know this isn’t going to be your garden-variety staid and furrow-browed nature documentary.
Shot over a span of several years, the film’s centerpiece is a band of Toque Macaque monkeys, a semi-endangered species that exists solely on the southeastern island of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean.
Reddish brown in color, the macaques are much smaller than chimpanzees and they more resemble lemurs than their simian cousins. Cute as all get out and eminently camera-friendly, the macaques tend to set up shop in a single location in troops numbering anywhere from 10 to 40 members.
As monkeys go, the macaques are among the most intelligent in the world and, as we soon find out, they observe a strict pecking order that could easily be compared to that of any centuries-old human monarchy.
There is an alpha male leader that has the final say in everything, multiple female underlings (referred to here as the sisterhood), a “political guard” consisting of males that act as soldiers. Below this hierarchy is the remainder of the troop which could rightfully be labeled as peasants.
Although the peasants don’t “serve” the royalty as such, they are generally treated as second-class citizens. They eat after the upper class, which sometimes means not at all, and must remain silent and not-reactive when taking abuse from the top-tier offspring who can run roughshod without any fear of retribution or reprisal. This might seem cruel but it’s better than the alternative of going solo and facing a plethora of unknown dangers outside the camp.
In a move that initially feels too precious, the filmmakers decide to name a handful of the principal monkeys which, in the long run, was a wise choice. The lead character is a plucky peasant dubbed Maya, identified by Fey as the heroine of the story, who understands her place but, once she gives birth to son Kip, she realizes the only way to improve his life is by taking the big chance of branching out into the wild.
Not All Fun and Games
Although most of the film (both the narrative and the visuals) falls squarely into the “adorable” category, a fair amount does not and, as a result, the story runs the gamut of emotions and virtually every cinematic genre. There is comedy, drama, romance, action, slapstick, thrills, tragedy, and as much violence as a “G” rating will allow.
Spoiler alert: for concerned parents, there are two monkey deaths depicted but both are handled with the utmost care with visuals kept to a bare minimum. Even with this thoughtful approach, it’s still possible, if not likely, that toddlers will find it upsetting.
It would be recommended to counsel children younger than 7 or 8 prior to and after seeing the film. Including death in a non-animated family Disney-produced movie is a huge gamble, but on the upside it also goes far in providing the story palpable “real-life” legitimacy.
For Mark Linfield and his co-director Alastair Fothergill, “Monkey Kingdom” marks career highs for both on every level. Each has worked on multiple Disneynature films before yet nothing they’ve done up to this point matches “Monkey Kingdom” from educational, artistic and, most importantly, entertainment perspectives.
One decision some might take issue with are two scenes where the monkeys share screen time with humans. Without giving anything whatsoever away, these segments appear to have been completely staged which, while subtracting significantly from the natural flow, adds to the overall enjoyment level for the tikes.
Disney Studios had a banner year in 2015. In addition to “Monkey Kingdom,” the company also released the critical and commercial hits “McFarland, USA,” “Cinderella,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Inside Out,” “Ant Man,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The Good Dinosaur,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” These movies took in over $5 billion at the box office and doesn’t even reflect home video and merchandise tie-ins.
Those certainly were the good ol’ days. Because of events largely within and a few out of their control (mostly in the last two years), Disney will likely never experience a year like 2005 again.
Director: Mark Linfield, Alistair Fothergill
Running Time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: G
Release Date: April 17, 2015
Rating: 4.5 out of 5