'Monkey Kingdom'

There probably isn’t a current cinematic tradition I love more than Disneynature’s annual wide release of a nature documentary on Earth Day every year. The films are generally brisk, heartwarming and educational. Forget the Discovery Channel – the wild is meant to be seen on the big screen, and Disneynature’s films are proof of that. I say all that as a way to talk about why this year’s in particular didn’t work for me, and what or how as a (amateur) critic I am supposed to actually offer a valuable review. I wouldn’t tell you not to go see Monkey Kingdom in the theater or to rent it one evening, especially if you have young kids at home. It’s certainly a better choice than Minions 7.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that if you’re planning on paying close attention, this is a film that may bother you in parts. Monkey Kingdom chronicles a family of toque macaques living in ancient ruins in the jungles of Sri Lanka. Deliberate or not, the imagery conjures up the King Louie stretch of Disney’s beloved animated feature The Jungle Book. The story doesn’t even begin to match the scenery, sad to say. It focuses on Maya, an underclass macaque who manages to climb the social ladder with her newborn son in tow.

Maya’s unlikely rise to the top does not manage to be particularly compelling, which raises all sorts of questions not so much about the directors of this tale – Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill – but about the, ahem, nature of their work. What if a compelling storyline doesn’t emerge during the months of shooting? These are wild animals not actors, after all, and tidy, three-act tales aren’t guaranteed by Mother Nature.

If we’re not to blame Linfield and Fothergill for the behavior (or lack thereof) of wild creatures, then what are we to criticize them for? Well, in the case of Monkey Kingdom, there is the almost certainly staged ransacking of a local school by the monkey horde – a scene that would be enjoyable if it wasn’t so obviously fabricated. But beyond that, I’m not really sure what there is to say.

Our co-directors didn’t mess with the formula that made, say, Bears so terrific. The affable Tina Fey is the narrator this time around – a perfectly suitable replacement for John C. Reilly. The jungles of Sri Lanka are, if anything, more stunning than the forests of Alaska. The animals in Monkey Kingdom, well, they weren’t quite up to par, but if we’re going to fret about that, then we’re fretting about the Disneynature formula itself, and that’s something I’d rather not do at this point.