The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:



See No Bad Reviews

 81 Minutes
Rated: G
Directed byMark Linfield; Alistair Fothergill
Starring: Tina Fey
Monkey Kingdom

Most younger viewers may not remember, but Walt Disney himself supervised the production of a series of documentary films in the1950’s known as True-Life Adventures. These documentaries showed the range of plant and animal life in various environments, including the Arctic, the California desert, and the Midwest prairies. Although the films in the series won a total of eight Oscars, many naturalists criticized them for staging sequences and turning the various denizens of the wild into comical real life versions of Mickey and Donald. Regardless of the criticism, they were quite technically proficient and enormously popular, playing in elementary school classrooms (including mine) for decades.


Half a century later, little has changed. Disney is still making documentaries, now under the Disneynature logo, and they are still enormously popular and still getting criticism for staged sequences. And they are still technically proficient and quite popular, in theaters and on video (the True-Life Adventures are now also available on home video). The difference is that Disney has now taken its anthropomorphism to a whole new level, creating complex characters and storylines worthy of many current theatrical dramas.


This year’s Disneynature offering is Monkey Kingdom, which focuses on a clique of some 50 macaque monkeys living in the overgrown ruins of a temple in Sri Lanka. Macaques are a highly social species, as the movie makes quite clear, and this particular clique has a well-ordered hierarchy, with an alpha male at the top and descending ranks below that. The animals’ well defined social structure makes creating a complex storyline fairly easy, thanks to some great photography and clever, oft times whimsical narration by Tina Fey.


Monkey Kingdom is a classic underdog tale, although in this case, it’s more accurate to refer to it as an “undermonkey” tale. Maya is at the bottom of the simian totem pole, far removed from Alpha male Raja and the three dominant older females referred to as the Sisterhood. Maya has to forage and scrounge for food on the floor of the jungle, being denied access to the tastier fruits high in the trees. A casual acquaintance with a young visiting male results in her new son Kip, who learns the social order the hard way (although, as Monkey Kingdom shows, the clique is far more tolerant of social transgressions by youngsters than by older monkeys.


Maya and the rest of the clique fall on hard times when a rival clique attacks and takes over their prime territory. Forced to flee, Maya shows the others the art of foraging she has perfected in her days at the bottom of the pecking order. Fortunately for them, there’s a terrific new food source nearby, a local village filled with goodies ripe for looting, first at a children’s birthday party and later in a farmer’s market. Eventually, the clique members regroup and ready themselves for another attack against the interlopers who took over their favored habitat.


If you look at the storyline of Monkey Kingdom from the point of view of a movie starring human beings, it’s a fairly familiar tale, replete with heroes, villains, romance, and comedy, that’s been done hundreds of times before.  Of course, the macaques aren’t human nor are they trained dogs, cats, horses, or members of the other domesticated species that have inhabited the movies since the days of Rin Tin Tin. Instead, Disney has made an effort to capture the monkeys in their natural habitat. So, while the story isn’t great by human standards, it’s not bad either, and it’s truly remarkable judged by the standards of the wild animals being filmed.


The task of telling an actual, entertaining story that directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill faced was aided enormously by the monkeys’ near-human facial features, their rigid social structure that led to behavior that fits within a more formal story structure and their insatiable curiosity. Maya, the heroine, has a hairdo like Moe from the Three Stooges, and several other “main characters” are easily distinguishable by audiences. So, patience and good editing were greatly responsible for developing the story.


Still, the movie raises significant questions about how much staging was involved. The jungle is a harsh environment (the deaths of two monkeys are depicted but the grisly details aren’t shown) and viewers might question whether the filmmakers took steps to protect Maya from meeting a similar fate. On a happier note, the monkeys probably enjoyed the scenes at a farmer’s market and a children’s birthday party during which they scavenged for food and made a predictably considerable mess in doing so. It’s impossible to imagine people conveniently absenting themselves from a birthday party so a camera crew could film “realistic” simian antics, so some prop setup and wrangling had to have occurred. If so, what is the real difference between Maya’s antics and those of some trained circus monkeys who might have been taught to do the same stunts in a traditional dramatic film? 


These questions are important in that Monkey Kingdom wants to educate youngsters about how monkeys and other animals actually live, and macaques usually don’t do so by crashing kids’ birthday parties. Carefully choosing which footage to use and careful editing (to make predators perhaps appear closer than they actually are) is one thing; creating comic scenes is another. The directors’ heavy focus on the storytelling also means that the film has to suggest rather than describe details of the monkeys’ lives and the film isn’t as educational as it could be.


Although Monkey Kingdom isn’t as realistic and educational as some documentaries on the same or similar subject matter might be, it’s also far funnier and more charming than most, and undoubtedly will do better at the box office (since Disney is donating some of the proceeds to charity, a healthy box office take does help the environment along with the Disney bottom line). Monkey Kingdom isn’t a work of art as much as a product, one that Disney has fine tuned over the past decade and for which it has the formula down pat. And, on balance, the studio does a considerable service in aiding children’s (and a few adults’) awareness of our natural habitat. For viewers looking for family entertainment and good humor in addition to increasing their environmental consciousness, Monkey Kingdom is funnier than a barrel of Paul Blarts.  

Read other reviews of Monkey Kingdom:


Monkey Kingdom (2015) on IMDb