**Embargoed for Friday release.**
The newest entry in the Disneynature series of wildlife documentaries is a big fake. Hold on, there’s no malice intended in that statement. In fact, “Monkey Kingdom” is enjoyable and educational and, at times, jaw-droppingly fascinating. But there’s no doubt that a lot of manipulation was involved in putting together the story of a troop of macaque monkeys living in an abandoned, jungle-surrounded Sri Lankan city.
This purports to be a look at life in the monkey tribe, which is filled with its own societal struggles and a class system, with a focus on the trials and tribulations of the “lowborn” Maya, who must pick up food scraps from the ground because she’s not allowed to ascend and eat from the branches of the troop’s prized fig tree.
Even though it’s Maya’s story, and it plays out like a Victorian novel (oh, woe is Maya, who is lonely and friendless and needs a mate and finds one, but he’s cast out by the tribe leader and, oh no!, she’s suddenly a single mom and now must feed herself and her son, but no one will help), there are lots of supporting players around the troop’s home of Castle Rock: Raja, the self-proclaimed king; his three nasty red-faced queens; a stooped-over macaque called Grandpa (who is close to 40 years old); an anti-social mongoose; a 7-foot-long monitor lizard with a taste for monkeys ... the list goes on.
Disney has long been a champion of nature films, going back to gems such as the short “Beaver Valley” (1950) and the feature “Perri” (1957), films that have always been brilliantly constructed, packed with cameras getting every sort of angle, and completely manipulative in telling stories about the creatures that star in them.
“Monkey Kingdom” is among the guiltiest of that trickery, with Tina Fey’s dramatic, often very funny, and conversationally toned narration explaining everything that’s going on in front of those cameras, from the macaques doing goofy gymnastics in the trees (nothing faked there) to the troop paying a visit to a local village and having easy access to food in a marketplace where, oddly, no people see them causing all sorts of chaos (completely staged).
There’s also Fey’s serious descriptions of what’s going on in the monkeys’ heads when peaceful Castle Rock is attacked by another group of macaques who want the place for their own. A nice touch is that Lex, the leader of the marauding monkey army, has some garish battle scars on his face, making it much easier for viewers to recognize him as the villain (no, that isn’t the work of the Disney makeup department).
Everything keeps getting back to the plight of poor Maya, who without complaint, becomes the object of abuse by month-old babies of highborn monkeys, and who wonders (thanks again to Tina Fey’s explanation of what Maya is wondering about) if she’ll ever see her boyfriend (and father of her child) Kumar again after King Raja exiles him from the rock.
The film gets around to danger toward and even death among the troop, but does so in bloodless manner, and it spends plenty of time showing the monkeys springing around in utter joy, most notably on “Termite Day,” when thousands of newborn termites take to the skies, making themselves easy marks for hungry monkeys who need only reach out, pluck ’em and eat ’em.
But the drama keeps returning in the shape of confrontations between Raja’s tribe and Lex’s tribe, building up to a final encounter to take over Castle Rock. This whole thing is both ridiculous and mesmerizing, and might have worked better without the “explanatory” narration, even though Fey is great at it. Young kids may be a tad shaken by a couple of the perilous moments, but everyone will be happy when it’s revealed that poor, downtrodden, ever-hopeful Maya finally finds herself a spot in that fig tree.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill
With a bunch of macaque monkeys, a monitor lizard, a mongoose, and Tina Fey as narrator
Movie review: Lots of monkey business in ‘Monkey Kingdom’
**Embargoed for Friday release.**