'Monkey Kingdom': Film Review

Monkey Kingdom Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Disney

Monkey Kingdom Still - H 2015

The visual trumps the verbal in this routine but watchable nature doc.

Tina Fey narrates this Disney doc about the monkeys of Sri Lanka.

Disney’s nature documentaries don’t veer very far from a time-tested formula.  Adorable animals cavort in their natural setting, caught by strategically placed cameras that get remarkably close to the flora and fauna.  And so it is in Monkey Kingdom, filmed in Sri Lanka with an impressive simian cast.  Some of us could do without the verbose, cutesy narration, in this case adroitly delivered by Tina Fey, but that seems to be another obligatory part of the formula.  The film should hit the sweet spot for family audiences.

Directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill have made other nature documentaries, and they and their camera crew capture extraordinary footage of a whole tribe of macaque monkeys living in the jungle near some impressive abandoned temples.  The filmmakers feel the need to impose an artificial story about the travails of Maya, living on the bottom rung of the social ladder, her mate Kumar and their baby Kip.  This story doesn’t even work on the movie’s own terms because we are never told how the different social strata within this kingdom were established in the first place.

The narration is overused, but at least Fey makes an engaging hostess.  The musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams is a cut above the syrupy scores found in many of these films, and there are even some witty song cues like the theme song from the TV show The Monkees, which introduces our menagerie.

Of course there is an impressive supporting cast, including elephants, peacocks, leopards, a reclusive mongoose and a menacing seven-foot monitor lizard that is the monkeys’ most determined enemy.  A couple of high points include the monkeys’ forays into more civilized enclaves in search of food.  At one point they enter a village and disrupt a planned birthday party, feasting on cake, jello and even popcorn.  Later they are forced to the city, where they also prove to be astonishingly resourceful scavengers in the urban markets.

In the end, Maya and Kumar eject a rival tribe from their habitat and manage to elevate their social standing in the process.  The sociology remains a bit murky, but the film is tightly edited and the footage is always fun to watch.  The end titles offer some revealing glimpses of how the camera crew managed to get close to the creatures.  Perhaps the most amusing touch of all comes at the very end, when the filmmakers offer thanks to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.  That must have flummoxed Disney’s corporate owners.

Narrator:  Tina Fey.

Director-screenwriter:  Mark Linfield.

Co-director:  Alastair Fothergill.

Producers:  Mark Linfield, Alastair Fothergill.

Directors of photography:  Martyn Colbeck, Gavin Thurston.

Editor:  Andy Netley.

Music:  Harry Gregson-Williams.

Rated G, 81 minutes.