The Monkey Kingdom was a disappointment.
I hadn’t seen any of the other Disney Nature films, but I was expecting a mash-up between the National Geographic and Nova specials I had grown up on and a zany Tina Fey adventure. However, the result was surprisingly bland even with its artificial injection of Disney magic. It all felt terribly fake.
Don’t get me wrong; the captured footage is amazing, but it doesn’t match up with the heroic adventure that Tina Fey is narrating. Right from the beginning, Maya is introduced as the heroine who triumphs over the “caste system” of the toque macaques. The movie tries to emphasize that her resourcefulness, ultimately, she slept her way to the top. Scandalous, but hardly disruptive to the fabric of monkey society.
The story is age old. Maya, a monkey at the bottom of the totem pole, falls for hunky newcomer Kumar, who brazenly knocks her up before being chased off by the other monkeys. She is left to raise their son Kip alone, friendless. Well, except for the other lowborn monkey who occasionally help her…and sometimes even babysit for her. When the monkeys are run off by a rival tribe, Maya and the other lowborn monkey’s foraging skills come in handy. They briefly rob a nearby city blind, raiding carts, and stealing chips such from unsuspecting shopkeepers — my sister leaned over to me at some point and said, “I will never eat street food again”– before heroically retaking their ancestral home and driving off the bad monkeys. Kumar becomes the new alpha male, and Maya enjoys an elevated status as his consort.
While Tina Fey doesn’t impress moral judgments on monkey sexuality — should Maya have slept with Kumar?– she is very sympathetic to the single mother. And she’s just as excited with Kumar returns and makes things right. But it’s unclear how much Maya is being punished for transgressing (e.g. having relations with someone besides the alpha male and his lieutenants) or if the other monkeys are even aware that Kip is Kumar’s son.
I watched the entire film with suspicion, because they could have at any point substituted one monkey for another and I wouldn’t have noticed. Did Kumar really come back? Or was it another male? Maya’s allies come and go when the narrative demands it, which leads me to believe that they were very selective with their footage to make Maya seem more isolated than she actually was. Maya’s enemies — the Sisters — also come and go as the narrative demands. The battle scenes were confusing. Due to the PG rating or lack of footage, it just looks like monkeys chasing each other. There is some blood. Spoiler alert: some monkeys die. Although Maya tragically feels their loss, they don’t have names or storylines of their own. Did Maya really game the system or was she lucky?
The best parts of the movie were when the soap opera dramatics were dropped (e.g. monitor lizard versus monkeys, various monkey shenanigans, mongooses, sloth bears, and monkey cuddling.) It could and should have been a movie about monkeys, not a reality show pumped full of drama.
Monkeys are not people. Criticizing Disney’s injection of human motivations onto monkeys may be besides the point, but all those moments of Monkey A is jealous of Monkey B, Monkey C is sad because of Monkey A detracts from moments of emotion. One of the worst choices was the theatrical soundtrack, which includes songs by Lorde. Perhaps there could have been an instrumental here or there, but the presence of music was incredibly distracting.
Monkey Kingdom is not worth watching in theaters if you’re over the age of 10 or a parent of small children, but I would pay to watch the making of Monkey Kingdom. (On a side note: there is a surprising amount of breastfeeding so you might want to have a conversation with the kiddies about that). They show some clips of the camera crews during the credits, and I would have much preferred watching interview and behind the scenes clips of the cast, crew, editing team, and Tina Fey.