Are you among the many parents who find it difficult to hit 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 toward action and comic book extravaganzas. Your spouse likes older action and crime dramas, and you tend to be drawn toward 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 toward children and families, these films 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 1990s 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, lending the story an unexpected but welcomed bite.
Opening the movie with the theme from “The Monkees” TV show also lets us know that this isn’t going to be your garden-variety staid and furrow-browed nature documentary.
Only in Sri Lanka
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”), and 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 they must remain silent and nonreactive when taking abuse from the top-tier offspring that 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. Maya understands her place, but once she gives birth to son Kip, she realizes that 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; 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, Disney-produced, family 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 that 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. While subtracting significantly from the natural flow, they add to the overall enjoyment level for the tykes.
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 it 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 its control (mostly in the last two years), Disney will likely never experience a year like 2015 again.
Director: Mark Linfield, Alastair Fothergill
Running Time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: G
Release Date: April 17, 2015
Rating: 4.5 out of 5