Review: Monkey Kingdom
The initial worry while watching Monkey Kingdom is a problem that plagues so many familial, mainstream, welcoming, and awareness-raising documentaries. It’s not about the footage: that’s beautiful. It’s not about access, because that’s utterly staggering. It’s also not about the narrative, for after all, life will find away.
It’s that for some reason this latest in an impressive series of DisneyNature movies, which follows the life of a lower class macaque monkey in Sri Lanka, has to start with a rather on-the-nose song: ‘Hey Hey We’re the Monkees.’ That’s the kind of cringe-inducing overt storytelling device that gives pause (never mind the ‘monkees’ and not ‘monkeys’).
It’s not necessarily a big deal, but you can’t help but feel the inclusion of this and other generic songs and trite narration, while there to appeal to as many people as possible, also downplay the seriousness of the story. The inherent goal, after all, in this film and others in the franchise is to find common ground between animals and humans so that we see these creatures as not something less than us, but as equals.
The distracting, inane music specifically is a minor criticism (Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s ‘Whatta Man’ plays when a suitor comes a-courting), but it’s also relative: Monkey Kingdom, like Bears and the DisneyNature films before, are incredible pieces of animal documentary filmmaking, stunning and engaging to watch. They are composed of narratives that would be clichéd if they were in a fictional film – but this here is real life, and it doesn’t need any embellishment.
Tina Fey’s narration is mostly restrained, though still littered with cheesy jokes and irrelevant material. Thankfully, the story and images trump all: we follow Maya, stuck at the bottom caste and trying to raise a son, find love, and survive in a colony that is strictly elitist. When they are beset by a rival group and sent out into the unknown wilderness, Maya’s skills prove most important, helping her rise through the ranks (also starring moniter lizards, cobras, and termites).
It’s such a wonderful, watchable film that should serve to help its cause while also being entertaining. We just shouldn’t have to lower the bar to cater to the cheesiest, least interested among us.