Review: Social (and tree) climbing in Disney's 'Monkey Kingdom'
Monkeys — they're just like us.
That's the takeaway from "Monkey Kingdom," the lighthearted, warm and handsomely shot documentary from Disney's nature division that fills their annual Earth Day slot (see "Bears," "Chimpanzee").
Tina Fey narrates the film like she's telling a children's story, which in many ways she is. Filmmakers Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill (who also directed "Chimpanzee" together) focus on a tribe of toque macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka, and the film centers on their community and the ways their social interactions mirror our own.
"Monkey Kingdom" opens with shots of the monkeys swinging and playing in their natural habitat while "(Theme From) The Monkees" plays, so right away the audience knows things aren't going to get too heavy. The footage is good-natured and fun, and the monkeys — too busy playing to put anybody down — are tough not to immediately relate to on an instinctual level.
We soon meet the players in our story, including alpha male Raja, a trio of hoity-toity females called "The Sisterhood" (think of them as your "Real Housewives" clique) and Maya, a low-born commoner who longs to climb the social ladder (which in this case means a higher branch on the fig tree, proving even the animal kingdom has its own version of the high school hierarchy).
Linfield and Fothergill follow Maya and the rest of the crew while they experience monsoon season, food shortages, a snack raid on a nearby town (they score some birthday cake) and the loss of their turf to a gang of rival monkeys. Along the way we meet a sloth bear and her cubs, a mongoose and a 7-foot monitor lizard, who looks like the kind of guy who you don't want to run into while traipsing through the jungle.
The story is told through simple, easy-to-follow beats that tick along like a Disney story narrative. If Disney were to make a cartoon about monkeys in Sri Lanka it would likely follow the exact same storyline, so it's impressive what Linfield and Fothergill were able to capture. It's a classic story of triumph and persistence.
"Monkey Kingdom" clocks in at a very digestible 82 minutes and doesn't overstay its welcome. It doesn't monkey around — that's left to the film's subjects, who are more than happy to oblige.
Rated G: Nothing objectionable
Running time: 82 minutes