If you’ve watched enough movies for a long enough time, it’s hard to imagine something about “The Disney Way” that isn’t bound to drive you nuts eventually. Maybe it’s the sameness in the design of those big-eyed animated heroines, or the structure of the post-1989 wave of animated musicals. And lately, maybe it’s the apparent desire to raid the entirety of its animated feature catalog to create live-action offshoots and remakes because it’s practically a license to print money. When you’ve figured out an identity that breeds success, you’re bound to develop certain formulas that perpetuate that success, and there will always be as many people who think those formulas are exasperating as those who find them irresistible.
Disney has been doing nature documentaries in some fashion going back more than 60 years, to the time when its True Life Adventures were winning Oscars and charming audiences with Winston Hibler’s folksy narration. These documentaries were a success in large part because Disney figured out that the same rules that applied to the animals in its animated features applied to the real-world animals being filmed: People care about characters, and the more like humans those characters seem, the better. It’s not enough to give the audience information; you need to give them a story. As the Disneynature label now offers its latest annual Earth Day-scheduled release, Monkey Kingdom, you can see that notion behind everything in this story: It’s charming, educational and occasionally exasperating.
The focus is on a troop of toque macaque monkeys living in the forests of Sri Lanka, a landscape full of misty treetops and long-abandoned temples. Because this is a Disney story (narrated by Tina Fey) about these monkeys, we get to know them by name: There’s Maya, our plucky heroine who’s at the bottom of the macaque social hierarchy, dominated by alpha male Raja and a trio of females known as the Three Sisters. There’s roguish young male Kumar who wanders in one day and sweeps Maya off her little monkey feet before being chased off by Raja. And, soon thereafter, there’s baby Kip, Maya’s adorable little offspring who becomes the focus of her survival instincts.
The directing team of Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield return from their work on Earth and Chimpanzee, and they once again demonstrate a talent for getting shots that become even more impressive when you see the behind-the-scenes footage during the credits that shows what they had to do to get those shots. An annual termite swarm becomes a feast for the macaques as they snatch the flying insects from mid-air; a desperate quest for food leads to a dangerous encounter in a lily pond, and gives us underwater glimpses of the monkeys’ swimming skills. From adorable snippets of baby monkeys playing to a sequence in which the macaques raid a human’s house in a nearby town, Monkey Kingdom delivers the kinds of images that can keep audiences from feeling they’re being forced to endure something (horrors!) educational.
It is educational, however, and that educational component works largely because the narrative keeps reinforcing, through effective storytelling, what these creatures’ lives are like. Making Maya the equivalent of a plucky underdog — a single mom surviving on scraps left by the upper-class, determined to give her child a better life — allows Monkey Kingdom to focus on power dynamics, and how much this world is about preserving and demonstrating that power. It’s a savvy move to give viewers — especially children — both the struggling mom and her cute baby as the center of our attention, because it makes the details that follow all the more memorable, on a level of emotional connection, not like bullet points from a textbook.
It is hard, though, not to feel a bit overly manipulated by the structure of the film’s story. The “villains” — the red-faced Sisters, and the leader of a rival macaque troop with his battle-torn face — are almost too perfect
in their Shakespearean physical ugliness, and it’s hard to believe that the top-of-the-hierarchy temple monkeys are quite as helpless and in need of guidance from their plucky inferiors when they’re driven from their home by that rival troop. By the time Maya gets her almost-princess-like happy ending, it might be tempting to roll your eyes at the Disney-ness of it all. Then again, maybe it’s that Disney-ness that kept you watching all the way to that happy ending.