Back in 2008, Disney initiated a new side-project entitled DisneyNature. This project, now its own branch of a production company, has produced eight feature films documenting certain fascinating natural occurrences revolving primarily around the beauty of life. The first feature, Earth, told a range of tales and documented various animals in their habitat, such as the famous polar bear sequence that opened the film (and the series). Since the studio’s beginning back in 2008, it has proven successful in not only providing adorable entertainment, but also educating audiences around the world with films such as The Crimson Wing, Oceans, The Wings of Life, and the most recent Bears.
But the studio isn’t just known for entertaining and/or educating. The key pull-in factor for DisneyNature (and Monkey Kingdom in particular) is the level of passion the filmmakers have for the animals they are documenting. As the ads and marketing so clearly convey, DisneyNature donates a certain percentage of the ticket sales to Conservation International, which will emphasize their attention and finances on preserving these animals and learning more about them, caring for them and continuing to safely capture footage of them in their natural habitat. It’s a nice little draw-in factor, tugging at our heart strings and convincing us that it’s all for a good cause. And although this certainly isn’t the best, most interesting, or most earnest nature documentary out there, it still has the perks of being gorgeously shot (like only DisneyNature can achieve) and just flat out adorable.
As the minutes ticked by, I kept asking myself just how these cinematographers manage to keep getting such close shots of these animals. At times, the film becomes so incredibly well focused that it’s difficult to not assume that it’s a staged production. It is obvious, however, that the events are happening (this is, after all, a documentary about monkeys), but as the story unfolds, it’s a little tough to grasp that the filmmakers managed to capture all of these connected events in real time, all leading up to a climax.
Which is why it isn’t far off to surmise that the documentarists filmed these monkeys, filmed them again, and again, and again, and examined the final takes and pieced together a story. For the most part, it works (after all, we do need some kind of story to propel the movie forward), but it does become hard to believe at times. It follows a group of monkeys in South Asia, living in the jungle and separated from each other via social ranking (the higher class lives in the higher branches while the lower class lives on the lower branches). The hero, Maya, gives birth to a son, Kip, who quickly becomes the film’s force for an emotional gut punch. He’s cute, and the movie never shies away from an opportunity to convince us of that. Maya, Kip, and her entire colony of comrades must relocate after another group of monkeys invade their home.
The movie then becomes not a tragic story of starving and survival, but instead a kind of funny coming-of-age tale that shows Maya and the rest of the adult monkeys providing for their young and the young getting into mischief. The movie is quite repetitive and often times boring until the last half, which has one sequence involving the monkeys discovering a dog (this is as they are subtly invading a nearby town). I loved that sequence, short as it was, but maybe that’s only because I’m a sucker for dogs. The second half also contains a sequence in which the monkeys try to stealthily steal food from a street market, and it was an enjoyable bit of footage that I’m still not sure how they managed to film without the grocer noticing (noticing the cameraman or the monkeys).
All of this cuteness is narrated by Tina Fey, and in a series of films that has had narration by James Earl Jones, Pierce Brosnan, and Samuel L. Jackson, Fey only comes off as an out-of-place goof, sometimes going as far as doing voiceover work for the monkeys, which I figure was an attempt at humor. It was never funny, often times being so bad that it made me cringe. I understand that the subject of adorable little monkeys being mischievous is ripe for a comedic talent to voice, but Fey comes off as more annoying than anything, but that’s mostly only when she tries to be funny. When she’s doing the simple, methodical documentary-narrating stuff, she’s as good as someone explaining events that are unfolding on screen could be. Only issue is, she’s no James Earl Jones.
Still, Monkey Kingdom is exactly what those walking into the theater will want. It’s eighty minutes of monkeys running around, hitting each other, swinging from vines, swimming, and rifling through humans’ food. Before my screening, I never had a conceptual image of monkeys crashing a birthday party and devouring all the cake. Now I’ve seen it. Thanks, DisneyNature.
Narrated by Tina Fey
Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill