Monkey Kingdom: Part 2 — A Grown-Up’s Take
Classism in the animal kingdom
A ruler with absolute power. A rigid aristocracy with no avenues for advancement. And in the very lowest classes, a struggle to survive that borders on starvation.
That might sound like 18th century France, but it also describes the world of the newest Disneynature documentary, Monkey Kingdom. Fellow Media Matters reviewer Matthew Kauffman Smith beat me to it by consulting with his young daughters, so be sure to check out his review for an accurate take on how kids will absorb this film. Unlike Matthew and his daughters, I came into Monkey Kingdom with no prior experience with Disneynature. I hope my skeptical (and hopelessly adult) view of the movie can provide a useful counterpoint.
The title refers to macaque monkey social order and their home among the rocks and ruined palaces submerged by Sri Lanka’s jungle. There, the alpha male, Raja, eats the choicest fruit at the top of the tree, and gets his pick of any female—but his power is only as strong as his approval ratings with the three matriarchs the narration calls the Sisters. These high society females were born into privilege, and they flaunt it with all the haughty cruelty of evil queens.
At the very bottom of the pecking order—literally eating only the fruit that falls to the ground—is our heroine, Maya. Maya was born into the macaque equivalent of India’s lowest castes. She can eat only what no one else in the tribe wants, which often means going hungry. She must endure the rough, abusive play of the Sisters’ children. And she must sleep in the rain, not under the roomy overhangs of Castle Rock, the troop’s home. There is nothing she, or any other monkey in the tribe can do to overcome their birth status.
But remarkably, events and motherhood inspire Maya to forge a better life for herself anyway.
How true is Monkey Kingdom? How did such a well-plotted underdog story play out with real wild animals, and how did the filmmakers get so lucky as to capture the whole thing? The story is so utterly Disney that it’s hard to believe it didn’t spring from ingenious cuts and rearrangement in the editing room. Yet the main monkeys are recognizable from frame to frame, and their actions clearly match Tina Fey’s bright (if sometimes a little cutesy) narration.
According to an interview codirector and producer Mark Linfield did for NPR, the film crews joined a troop of toque macaques—named for the distinctive hat-like hairdo they sport at the top of their head—for two and a half years of filming. This particular troop has been part of an ongoing study for 50 years, so the filmmakers worked closely with the study’s scientists to follow the monkeys who were likely to provide the best story fodder. So maybe the story really did happen just as its portrayed.
My only quibble is that while the documentary gave tantalizing bits of information about macaques, its focus was on telling a story, and not, say, explaining how other adult males who aren’t the alpha male fit into the troop. In a documentary, there is the expectation that factual information about the subjects will teach us something while we are entertained. Monkey Kingdom falls a little short on the teaching front.
But between the playful music (“Hey, Hey We’re the Monkees”; “Whatta Man” by Salt-N-Pepa) and stunning scenery, Maya’s life-and-death fight for her son’s future and the betterment of her tribe is nothing short of captivating. There’s treachery, adventure, danger, romance, battle scenes and hijinks—all the ingredients that add up to movie gold. And if Disneynature took a few liberties with some of the details (Monkeys aren’t monogamous, are they? But that’s a rather touching family picture there. Maybe they’re a little bit monogamous?) I’m not complaining.
Monkey Kingdom is rated G, and I didn’t write anything about Kumar, Maya’s mate. He has a great storyline of his own—“whatta man” indeed.