Front Row at the Movies
Disney Takes Us To Another World In "Monkey Kingdom"
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Walt Disney has given us True-Life Adventure films since 1948 when it focused on Alaska’s "Seal Island." Moviegoers had never before encountered anything quite this "real" on the screen. It won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.
Many Disney nature films and educational shorts followed.
In 2008 Disney revamped its approach to nature documentaries by launching an independent film label called DisneyNature. Although based in France, its reach is worldwide.
For instance, DisneyNature’s first presentation was titled "Earth." Another was "Oceans." Others have ranged from "African Cats" to "Bears." Eight films so far.
That’s including its latest entry, "Monkey Kingdom" This simian celebration is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, "Monkey Kingdom" introduces us to a family of toque macaques (Macaca sinica), a reddish-brown monkey endemic to Sri Lanka.
Torque macaques are recognizable by the swirl of hair atop their heads, a look similar to that of Moe in The Three Stooges. This gives each of them a cartoonish persona that serves well in a Disneyesque documentary.
"Monkey Kingdom" takes its name from the troops of macaque that run loose about Sri Lanka’s Kingdom of Polonnaruwa, a collection of ancient Buddhist temples that you saw as backdrop in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
Here we meet Maya, a toque macaque who wants to see her son Kip advance within the social strata of her extended family. She must use her smarts to make this happen while at the same time dealing with the invasion of a neighboring monkey tribe.
We also meet family leader Raja, a trio of females known as the Sisterhood, and a newcomer named Kumar. Yes, we’re amazed by the distinct personalities found among these macaques, as if they came out of central casting.
Aside from the spoon-fed lesson in natural history, "Monkey Kingdom" also serves as a fascinating travelogue featuring Polonnaruwa’s ruined temples and abandoned towers and overgrown stone structures.
A highlight is footage of monkeys swimming underwater. And a look at the complex social hierarch of the macaques. "For Maya, she’s kind of like any female human, if you like, trying to do the best for her kid," says co-director Mark Linfield. "But she’s got the weight of macaque society pressing on her as well … she had to use her street smarts to get out of this sort of social straitjacket that she was in."
Narrators for these DisneyNature films have included such notables as James Earl Jones, Pierce Brosnan, Samuel L. Jackson, and Meryl Streep. The "Monkey Kingdom" voice over is adeptly handled by Tina Fey.
Why did Tina Fey agree to do a movie about monkeys? "I always try to pick things by, ‘Is this a movie I would want to see?’ " she tells us. "It’s nice to do stuff that your kids can see, but also I would totally skip out of work to go see this on my own."