Ever since Disney got into the nature documentary game, it was only a matter of time before we’d get an entire film dedicated to monkeys. Those lovable little scamps were made for the very particular brand of gentle animal humanization and grandiose visual stimulation that defines the DisneyNature series. Thankfully, that flick is finally here and not only is it just as charming as you’d hope, Tina Fey even did the narration.
Sure, you could try to be cynical and resist that cavalcade of cinematic charm, but honestly, is it worth the effort? Just submit and smile.
As has become customary in DisneyNature docs, ‘Monkey Kingdom’ has a rigidly structured narrative that’s so perfect for the narrative’s purposes that you can’t help wondering if it’s all contrived. Our heroine is a Sri Lankan macaque named Maya, who had the misfortune of being born into the bottom rung of a tree-bound monkey ecosystem where the alphas live up top. She toils away surviving off the soiled fruit that falls to the bottom while a trio of wicked sister monkeys live out a snotty life of luxury up above. (For real, the story is that specific.)
Eventually, fortune favors the darling little Maya. Not only does she give birth to a mind-bogglingly cute infant, she soars above her meager status and rises to the tippy top of her community. Along the way, there are rival monkey fights, a dangerous lion sighting, and various other events that suit the desired three-act structure of this narrative-driven nature doc perfectly and crowd-pleasingly.
Everything about ‘Monkey Kingdom’ flows to such a clear narrative beat that it’s hard to imagine the filmmakers were able to catch it all in such eye-popping digital clarity and natural majesty. How could they possibly know that they’d stumbled onto the simian equivalent of a classic Disney Princess story, and how were they able to capture the perfect shot of every moment?
Anyone with a remote understanding of the filmmaking process will undoubtedly feel that there must have been some significant behind-the-scenes manipulation to manufacture the narrative. And yet, how is it possible to tell a Sri Lankan monkey what to do? I’m aware that some coked-up and stressed-out producers must face similarly difficult tasks with the likes of Chloe Kardashian on a weekly basis, but at least there’s a shared form of verbal communication to fall back on. So, even if ‘Monkey Kingdom’ has some less than honest editorial and production practices going on to manufacture the crowd-pleasing narrative, it’s best not to get too hung up on documentary ethics. The fact is that the light entertainment doc delivered on screens must have taken significant effort to pull off no matter what shady business was required. Clearly, co-directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill did something right.
What’s unquestionable is the filmmaking craft. The images are beautiful, featuring sequences of slow-motion monkey swinging and flinging that’ll knock your eyeballs out, and unbelievably cute moments of interaction between a monkey mama and baby that’ll make those dangling eyeballs well up. Every frame is vividly composed for maximum impact and cut together into a narrative with remarkable flow. It’s truly wonderful to behold on the big screen, and Tina Fey’s sly narration sneaks in just enough humor over animal reaction shots to make it feel gently playful.
One could argue that there’s little need for such puffy presentations of animal interaction, and that there’s a queasiness to how Disney has created an industry that anthropomorphizes actual animals in addition to its cartoons. However, complaining about these things seems to miss the point. Sure, the DisneyNature docs aren’t exactly works of high art or even meaningful education, but they are delightfully fun and beautiful filmmaking achievements in their own meager ways. ‘Monkey Kingdom’ is easily one of the best efforts cranked out from this boutique documentary studio thus far. If you have a sweet spot for these fluffy flicks, don’t hesitate to sign up for this latest edition.