Life can be tough if you weren't born to privilege. You know and understand your place in society, but wish it were higher. You try in vain to be accepted by your betters. You see no way to improve your lot in life and all you can do is watch others enjoy the fruits of their vaunted positions, and serve them. Sufficient food and shelter are hard to come by, but you make the best of the situation. You're disregarded and sometimes outright disrespected. You might not even be free to enjoy the company and comfort of the life partner of your choice. If you become a single parent, you may find yourself even more alone than when you just had yourself to be concerned with. And this whole time, you also have to worry about those outside your society taking your food, your home, your family, even your life, knowing that your only defense is those above you who treat you with such disdain. Yes, it can be really tough being a monkey in the jungles of Sri Lanka.
"Monkey Kingdom" (G, 1:20) is the eighth feature film from Disneynature and tells the story of Maya, a female toque macaque (pronounced "muh-KAK") who finds herself in the exact situation described above. She was born at the bottom of her group's social ladder. She has to watch her fellows in the tree branches above her eat fruits and flowers, while she is forced to scavenge what she can, including the scraps which fall to the jungle floor. She watches the other monkeys play in the tower of boulders called "Castle Rock", knowing that trying to interact with them would lead to an attack by her own kind. When it rains and the higher-born use Castle Rock for shelter, Maya and the other societal cellar dwellers are literally left out in the cold. When a male macaque who has struck out on his own shows an interest in Maya, he is chased off by the others. Maya is left alone and pregnant, with no choice but to fend for herself and her little boy, Kip.
This being the jungle, there's even more for Maya and her fellow macaques to worry about besides the social order in their kingdom. First off, they have their natural predators to contend with. Steering clear of leopards and seven foot long monitor lizards will always be a priority, as will the search for food. Different seasons yield different edibles in varying amounts. Sometimes the monkeys have to get creative in their search for food, and sometimes (equally creatively), they just steal it from a nearby village. I suppose regular human people could be dangerous to encounter, but we see none of that here. In fact, we see the monkeys interact very amusingly with a variety of animals that are neither predator nor prey, to include an annoyed mongoose, some cute bear cubs and even an easy-going dog. Then again, there's also the danger of losing out on more than some nuts and berries. Castle Rock is prime jungle real estate and could be seen as very tempting by, say, a rival gang of macaques.
I had no idea that monkeys had such a strict social order. And that's not all that surprised me. I don't want to spoil anything by describing some of the other things I saw monkeys do in this movie, because, unless you're a monkologist (yeah, I just made that up), you're likely to be surprised as well. But there's a lot more to this movie than simply an educational journey through the wilds of an island nation in the Indian Ocean. The movie features magnificent cinematography and editing, along with Tina Fey perfectly narrating a script that is accessible, interesting, clever and fun. Technically, this is a documentary, but it feels much more like a well-planned story, only you can't plan this stuff. There's real drama here, situations to which most people can relate and even a touch of a Disney princess story.
"Monkey Kingdom" is definitely not your grandparents' nature program. This movie is beautiful, thrilling, fun and educational in a way that you'll thoroughly enjoy. I had the pleasure of seeing this movie with three generations of a family with whom I am very close. The youngest member is three years old and was experiencing her very first movie in a theater. This child, who is normally very
energetic (choosing my words carefully because my friends will be reading this review), was as happy and calm as I've ever seen her (awake) and, for much of the movie, she was rapt, as was her mother and grandmother, and me. Whether you're 3, 23, 43 or 93, I can hardly imagine anyone of any age not enjoying this wonderful movie. "A"