Opening this weekend:
Monkey Kingdom—Maya, the heroine of this newest animal film from Disneynature, is very much a Disney Princess. Cinderella, to be specific. She’s a “lowborn” in a troop of toque macaques living in the ancient ruins at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. The “highborn” sisters who get to enjoy the warmer upper branches and the riper fruit are a trio of lividly red-faced hags who freely swat babies not their own and bare their formidable fangs at any would-be social climbers.
In other words, they aren’t kidding with that title. Monkey Democratic Republic this isn’t.
As the narration, spoken by Tina Fey, informs us in the opening minutes, macaque society is an old-school hierarchy with well-defined social roles and very rare opportunities for upward mobility. The story follows Maya as she takes up with Kumar, an attractive but decidedly not-alpha male who is soon driven off by top monkey Raja and his goons, leaving Maya as, alas, a single mother to her shriveled, embryonic-looking, and outrageously cute male infant Kip.
Perils and hardships for the troop follow, one being a rival troop led by “Lex,” a classic Disney villain with a scary, fangy, battle-scarred face. Lex’s gang forces “our” monkeys out of their ruins and into temporary exile in a nearby urban area to raid markets and other human habitations. The troop’s attempt to regain their turf gives Maya and her family a chance at a better social role.
Obviously this isn’t, in the strictest sense, a documentary; as with most nature films the story had to be shaped out of the material the filmmakers were able to obtain. And in some cases—especially, here, in the scenes of the monkeys in human settings—it seems like it must have been, if not staged, at least set up in advance to some degree.
But, as with the two other Disneynature features I’ve seen, 2011’s Chimpanzee and last year’s Bears, no amount of Disney-style jocularity and cutesy narration can detract from the astonishment of Monkey Kingdom’s footage. The directors, Brits Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, captured not only intimate shots of simian society—including jaw-dropping underwater sequences of the monkeys swimming like champs in order to harvest lily-pad seed pods—but also terrific scenes of sloth bears, hornbills, a mongoose, and scorpions carrying around their hauls of winged termites like shoppers on Black Friday.
Parents of younger kids, as well as the many people of all ages who are themselves particularly sensitive to animal suffering and the harshness of nature, should be advised that [spoiler alert!] Monkey Kingdom includes a short scene of a monkey falling prey to a monitor lizard, and another of a monkey dead after a battle. Neither are animals to which we’ve been previously introduced, and both sequences are handled fairly discreetly, but both are potentially upsetting all the same.
These specifics aside, I have to admit that I found Monkey Kingdom, touching and visually spectacular as it is, rather upsetting in general, by implication. The behavior it depicts carries unmistakable echoes of human society ranging from India’s caste system to Europe’s aristocracies to America’s high school cafeterias, and it calls into troubling and depressing question the long-term durability of the human democratic impulse. Monkey Kingdom seems meant to make us smile at how monkeys are just like people. But what I got from it, I’m afraid, is that people are just like monkeys.