Monkey Kingdom (2015)
Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill
Like all other films, any good documentary has to tell a story. But sometimes, compelling narratives aren’t easy to come by in documentaries. Real life gets in the way and intended plots fade away into unfortunate facts. Nothing ruins a good story like the truth. But deep in the jungle ruins of a Sri Lankan rain forest, Disneynature (whose first documentary, “Earth,” released seven years ago to acclaim) found a troop of toque macaques (pronounced toke muh-cacks) who became the perfect subjects for their next great story.
Toque macaques live exclusively in Sri Lanka, where they are sometimes referred to as the “temple monkeys” for their tendency to live among the country’s many ancient abandoned ruins. They’re the smallest of the macaques, but also the species with the most highly structured social order. The alpha male (in this troop, a stoic macaque known as Raja) lives the high life. This is as literal as it is figurative, as the alpha gets privileged high placement in the fig tree, where the best fruit is found. Below him are three sisters, unnamed aggressive-looking creatures unafraid to smack a bothersome child or scare away a mother looking for a bite to eat. At the bottom of the ladder, scavenging for food on the dangerous jungle ground, is Maya, a young macaque who was born into this lower-class existence. Soon, she finds hope in a new addition to the troop, Kumar, and becomes pregnant. But when Kumar is driven away by a jealous Raja, and Maya’s son Kip is born without a father, single mother Maya is left to raise her son the only way she knows how – scrapping for everything she can. They’ll have to avoid monitor lizards and leopards, and try to find food where the three sisters won’t bother her. When another troop drives away our protagonists, they’ll be driven into the kingdom of the city, where they will struggle to adapt to the human way of life. Eventually, though, things will turn around in the unlikeliest of ways and a stand-off will lead to a shake-up of the social order in this troop.
Narrated by the bubbly and animated voice of Tina Fey, “Monkey Kingdom” finds a friend in lighthearted humor. The macaques, the expressive and comical apes that they are, are ideal subjects. The children climb on the tails of their mothers as the adult males vie for females’ attention during the courtship season. It’s thoroughly enjoyable. But it’s a story not unlike a classic gangster tale, with a defined social order enforced by thugs and challenged by rival gangs, who will do anything to claim the territory they think they deserve. It has heartbreak, as Disney dutifully tells of death and injury, quickly but with reverence for the lives of those lost to natural predators. But mostly, the story plays out in a way we might not have ever expected. It’s a beautiful story, narrated with great humor (including Fey lending her voice to the macaques when she thinks they have something they want to say). If nothing else, “Monkey Kingdom” is the ideal promotional video for Sri Lankan tourism. The city bustles with elephants on parade, while the jungle has its own perks – a beautiful abandoned temple filled with a range of extraordinary wildlife. It’s like a real-life “Jungle Book.”
“Monkey Kingdom” is the perfect choice for the whole family. Children love the adorable macaques at play. Adults will appreciate the class structure story for what it is. I expected Disney to do a satisfactory job – they always do – but I didn’t expect to enjoy myself as much as I did. Disneynature may have just topped itself.