The eighth entry in Disney’s eco-minded Disneynature series, “Monkey Kingdom” may well be its cheekiest, funniest and most purely entertaining. Tracking a tale of forbidden love and literal social climbing amidst a macaque clan in Sri Lanka, this Mark Linfield-directed docu-fiction contains typically top-shelf nature photography, an uncannily relatable cast of primate characters, and an anthropomorphic narrative complex enough that one can’t help but wonder how much it was actively massaged for maximum impact. This latter matter shouldn’t bother the film’s young target viewers too much, however, and the film ought to find an appreciative family audience.
Throughout the Disneynature films, there’s an often palpable tension between the pitilessly Darwinian natural world so evocatively captured by series producer and co-director Alastair Fothergill, and the Disney-friendly happily-ever-after storylines that are superimposed upon it. At least in the early going, “Monkey Kingdom” seems willing to address the more problematic issues in simian society head-on, creating its drama through the highly developed, much-studied class system of its subjects.
Set amid some striking abandoned temples that have been halfway subsumed into the jungle, the film introduces a strictly stratified group of toque macaques. At the top, alpha male Raja and his trio of favored females, dubbed the Sisters (presumably wicked), lounge around on the highest branches and get first dibs on the best cuisine the jungle has to offer. At the bottom, our heroine Maya and her fellow lower-classmates scrounge for whatever scraps they can find, while making sure to stay out of the way of their social betters.
This Cinderella story gets an unusual wrinkle when a roving male named Kumar — introduced as “one hunky monkey,” a line that only works thanks to Tina Fey’s voiceover — meets Maya, knocks her up, and then is chased away by Raja. Now tasked with feeding her baby as well, Maya is forced to become ever more resourceful to find food, at one point diving into a pond while a 7-foot monitor lizard lingers nearby, and even staging a ninja-like raid on a human child’s birthday party. (Considering how well positioned the cameras are to capture the latter, it’s hard not to imagine it’s a setup.)
When the clan is driven out of their sweet digs by a rival group of monkeys, they head into a nearby village where, the film posits, the onetime upper class are rendered helpless from all their pampering, while the primate proles teach them how to survive by their wits in the urban jungle. It’s an interestingly Marxist twist coming from a company like Disney, and while one is never 100% sure that these really are the same monkeys as before, the scenes of macaques slyly shoplifting from street-market stalls, attempting to ride a stray dog, and making a temporary home of a sky-high cell-phone tower are undeniably hilarious.
If “Monkey Kingdom” ranks as the most consistently diverting of the Disneynature series, it’s largely due to the ceaselessly dynamic behavior of the little critters on display — constantly swinging from vines, falling, wrestling and slapping each other, they’re natural born entertainers, and their displays of affection and grief are eerily humanlike. Linfield and Fothergill offer footage that can be jaw-dropping in its detail and intimacy; the time-lapse photography of the changing landscape is phenomenal, and one sequence where the jungle comes alive with thousands of winged termites in flight is among the most distinctive the series has captured.
Music from Harry Gregson-Williams suits the film’s dynamics well, and the use of the theme song from “The Monkees” is just dumb enough to be clever.