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“Monkey Kingdom” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

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2015 is already shaping up to be a stellar year for Disney. It began with the tremendous success of Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” a film that epitomized the live-action cartoon. Pretty soon, we’ll also be treated to the release of Disney’s latest collaborative effort with the geniuses over at Pixar, “Inside Out,” which promisingly appears to be one of their best efforts since “Up” in 2009. Sandwiched right in the middle, however, is the latest documentary release from Disneynature, the delightful “Monkey Kingdom.” This film is the perfect middle ground between those major releases and takes a back seat to neither one, as Disney has presented us with a real-life adventure that is as touching and captivating as any narrative feature that I’ve seen this year.

Disneynature is continuing their Earth Day tradition, by releasing what is certainly their best film yet. “Monkey Kingdom” chronicles a tribe of macaque monkeys in the jungles of Sri Lanka. The beautiful backdrop of this island nation in the Indian Ocean is breathtaking, taking full advantage of the ancient Buddhist temples that are interspersed among the trees and rocks where the macaques live and play. The revelatory thing about these drastically intelligent creatures is the pecking order that they adhere to and observe. Such is the case of our lead actress (so to speak) Maya, who dwells on land under the rule of Raja, King of the tribe. Raja, his sisters and their children enjoy the vast fruits of this land (and the prime real estate of the tree-tops) while Maya and other low-feeders simply survive off of what they can. This sometimes entails dangerous treks through creeks to fetch plant roots underwater, while trying not to raise the ire of the deadly monitor lizard.

Yes, life is hard for the macaque, if you’re not of the upper-echelon sector of the tribe, that is. Fortunately, some well-placed joy is about to enter Maya’s life, in the form of a handsome stranger named Kumar. It’s love at first sight between these two youngsters, but Kumar’s brash attitude (i.e. not sucking up to Raja right away) gets him expelled from the camp. With her man gone, Maya is soon taken with child and her survival skills have to be severely sharpened to endure, all the while protecting her son Kip. After some time, Kumar returns. He’s a little bit wiser now and has learned to make friends and take care of Kip and Maya. It is then that a rival band of macaque monkeys led by the hideous, battle-torn Lex cause our tribe to be driven from their home at “Castle Rock” and the lines become blurred between Raja, Kumar, Maya, Kip and the Sisters as well as the entire group as they must forage for food and shelter while coming together as a family and possibly having new leaders step up in the bargain.

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As I sit here and describe the events in this film, anyone would be hard-pressed to believe that I am referring to a documentary on a kingdom of monkeys. This story is so polished and refined, that you cannot help but become invested in these creatures, even to the point of viewing them as individuals and not animals. And I’m also not going to acquiesce to the fact that it looks too sophisticated, and therefore begin to surmise how much of this film has been staged to the best of the film crew’s ability? To tell you the truth, I really don’t care. While the film does have writers (somebody has to come up with cute names for these guys, right?), the habitat of the macaque is magnificently showcased and I just couldn’t help myself from enjoying every minute of their exploits. This brings me to some very inspired scenes in this film. When our tribe is on the run and pushed away from Castle Rock, Maya and her friends happen upon some impromptu buffets, the first courtesy of an unattended kitchen adjacent to a schoolhouse full of Indian children preparing for a birthday celebration. Or when the macaque make their way into the city and sample the cuisine of the unsuspecting street vendors. I’m sure I’m speaking for the macaque monkeys as well, when I say that it sure beats the termite swarms back home. And while the city has always been known as the urban jungle, these monkeys show their ingenuity by spending the night in the closest thing to their tall trees back at Castle Rock – a cell phone tower! All the while, I couldn’t help but thinking that these guys were oblivious of the old 1980’s PSA about not monkeying around with power lines.

“Monkey Kingdom” was co-directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, the men behind Disneynature’s previous efforts “Chimpanzee” and “Earth.” Mr. Fothergill was also responsible for “Bears” and “African Cats,” those two of which he directed alongside Keith Scholey. With each release from this Disney subsidiary, it becomes more and more obvious that there is something really special amongst these painstakingly real tributes to the world’s wildlife. Narrated by the always entertaining Tina Fey, “Monkey Kingdom” has raised the bar for these “true-life adventures,” which was the actual name of the Walt Disney’s wildlife documentaries of the 1950’s. And just as those films have become classics so long ago, they will have company from this new breed of documentary that I’ll go as far as to say are gearing up to become instant classics. They sure are instantly entertaining.

**** (four out of four stars)

 

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