In Sri Lanka, a kingdom lays deserted, devoid of humans but inhabited by creatures of the wild. Among them, tribes of monkeys rule the landscape, establishing hierarchies and family units among. We hone in on a single mother, Mya, who must endure the elements, raise her newborn and find daily rations of food for her and her son to survive.
The latest release from the Disney Nature, which annually releases family-friendly nature documentaries around Earth Day, is yet another treat worth seeing on the big screen. These may have brief running times (this one is 81-minutes long) and offer the expected load of “cute” animal footage, but they’re also accessible documentary films, painstakingly shot in exotic locations, that will fill children with wonder and a possible desire to become a veterinarian.
Tina Fey’s narration is warm and reserved, not overly jokey or obtrusive. Celebrity narrators in the past either nailed the assignment by not pushing too hard or wore out their welcome by bombarding the audio with cornball jokes. Fey sounds like she’s reading her lines as a bedtime story, which is just right.
The best of the Disney Nature films is still Chimpanzee, in which we see an elder chimp adopt a stranded three-month old. I’ve never forgotten the old chimp taking the young orphan as his own and saving his life by being his guardian.
These movies may be cobbled together from existing footage, with “stories” possibly shaped in the editing room. Yet, there’s no denying the power of the imagery. Monkey Kingdom can’t trump Chimpanzee (and, as fine a job as Fey does, it’s not the perfect merging of bear-like John C. Reilly and Bears last year), it offers many scenes that are wow-inducing, delightful and wonderful.
There’s a bunch of stand-out sequences, one after another, that provide some incredible sights. A swarm of termites that overcomes the kingdom and provides the monkeys (and even some efficient scorpions) with a food supply is an awesome sight. The visual of the termites overwhelming every frame of the monkey kingdom seriously reminded me of the famous locust sequence from Days of Heaven (I mean this as a high compliment).
There’s also the remarkable footage of the monkeys swimming for food (and even eating their meal under water!). The sequence that will likely be remembered best is when Mya, her son and a group of monkeys encounter an empty school that has been set up for a child’s birthday celebration. The monkeys crash the party, ransacking every inch of food in sight, before the children return; watching them flee the scene of the crime, multitudes of monkeys with food stuffed in their cheeks, is hilarious. At the very least, watching the tender relationship between Mya and her boy is endlessly fascinating.
While this is appropriate for older children, the younger ones may find some of this distressing. While there’s no on-screen violence, a quarrel between monkey groups results in a number of them appearing bloodied and wounded. An especially affecting moment occurs when a cluster of monkeys discover that one of their own has died. These scenes are admirably in plain view and have a real dramatic power to them.
The one touch I really didn’t like was the inclusion of a cover version of Salt N’ Pepa’s “Whatta Man” during the introduction of Mya’s suitor. It’s the only wrong-headed touch in a film with soaring imagery and such mesmerizing subjects. On the other hand, Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is beautiful and the use of the theme song to The Monkees in the introduction couldn’t be more perfect.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to their selection for next year. I suggest Kittens, narrated by Steve Martin. For now, I’ll do my own narration for Maltese, currently being filmed in my living room.