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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Movie Review: Monkey Kingdom

Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom is delightful but still doesn't earn all of our respect.
Review by Matt Cummings
Disneynature, the bastard stepchild of Mouse House, is like a well-meaning aunt or uncle whom the family conveniently forgets about until the holidays. Started in 2008, the studio has never found its core audience, posting huge losses in an already crowded "Wow, Nature!" market. Perhaps part of the problem is that others do it so much better, as evidenced by PBS Nature's spectacular Earthflight. There, the animals sell the story: no need for fancy trickery, creative edits, or propped-up story beats. And although Money Kingdom is perhaps the best Disneynature doc we've seen, it still doesn't earn the total respect it thinks it deserves.

Hidden within the jungles of Sri Lanka lies Castle Rock, a long-abandoned city that's become home to the Macaque monkeys, whose rigid hierarchy sees some living the high life with others like Maya struggling to keep up. Doused with a blonde mop of hair, she's feisty but knows her place at the bottom won't change unless something big happens. That soon does in the birth of her first child - a baby boy - forcing her to take drastic steps to move up the social ladder. But when an opposing family of monkeys descends upon Castle Rock - driving Maya and the others into a human city - Maya and the others must gather their strength to push their enemies back to regain their home. Maya will soon learn that strength not only comes in numbers but in perseverance if she wishes to see her son survive.

What's amazing about Kingdom is the sometimes rather fierce and immutable caste system that the Macaque monkeys have created. There's very little social mobility, unless an event comes along that tests those in power, which rather conveniently happens here. Of course, there's the requisite cute monkeys engaging in cleaning and jumping into water in slow-motion. But perhaps the real strength of it lies in something we haven't seen too often from Disneynature: death. We don't see animals being killed, but we do see others mourning their dead after something happens. That's unique for this series, and something which Directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill aren't afraid of showing. To them, it's the natural order of things, and here it's shown just enough to remind the little ones that death is a part of life. Narrated by Tina Fey, the comedian does a much better job than John C. Reily's Bears, blending her comedic voice with to make it part of the movie, something Reily never felt comfortable doing.

And yet, Monkey Kingdom is far from perfect. There's a ton of creative editing going on, whereby some animals seem to react to things that were probably never captured at the time the event was actually happening. It's done for effect, but many times it just feels orchestrated. An 'invasion' by the monkeys into a family home's birthday party also seems like someone opened the door and gates to the chicken pens. Everything in those scenes is laid out so perfectly that it's doubtful our directors actually followed them and eventually stumbled on to this scene. Perhaps that does happen in Sri Lanka, but I wish it would have been captured more organically. This series is made for younger children, but with entire sections devoted to parents, Disneynature needs to do more to keep its believability among parents high. In Earthflight, Nature seems to have simply strapped small cameras on the birds and other animals, letting their migrations tell the story. That to me is far more entertaining because it captures nature at its most raw and beautiful.

One of the best parts of Kingdom lies in its credits, as both Linfield and Fothergill are seen capturing some of documentary while dealing with bears and the general dangers inherent in a jungle. That's the sort of imagery I appreciate, perhaps offering a more interactive method than trying to spice up something which is already interesting. Still, Disneynature is getting closer to becoming an attraction that will actually pay the bills; the question is whether there's enough time left before Momma Mouse abandons it.

After eight attempts, Monkey Kingdom is finally close to the Disneynature we know it can be. And while some of the action still feels orchestrated and even edited for effect, the result is a family crowd-pleaser that probably won't stick around for long, if history is any indicator. But maybe this enjoyable distraction should, if only until the summer tentpoles arrive.

Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom is Rated G and has a runtime of 81 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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