“Monkey Kingdom” opens with shots of the Sri Lankan jungle, where mists surround trees and ruins of ancient cities and temples. It showcases a truly beautiful home for the troop of macaque monkeys who live around a landmark called Castle Rock.
Then the “Monkees” theme song starts.
The serene and the silly clash regularly in Disneynature’s latest, and any adults watching will constantly have to remind themselves that this movie was made for children. Educating while entertaining is never easy, so you have to cut Disney some slack.
But did they really have to use that song?
It’s not the only overly literal musical choice, either, and narrator Tina Fey is often required to “speak” for the monkeys, as if they were teenagers hanging out at the mall. It can be a little much, even for a generous viewer.
Thanks to careful editing, directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill fashion a relatable story from the experiences of Maya, a female on the lowest rung of the troop’s social ladder. Macaques have a rigid, often violent hierarchy, and Maya’s abuse at the hands of the selfish 1-percenters is crafted as an obvious analogy for the worst human behavior.
When she gives birth to son Kip, Maya has a new motivation to improve her lot and begins venturing (and leading others) farther away from the safety of Castle Rock.
The best scenes in “Monkey Kingdom” involve these attempts to go beyond home turf. A trip to a nearby pond becomes a fight for survival against the area’s predators, in a scene with enough suspense to push the film’s G rating.
Much lighter are the monkeys’ raids on human territory. Their theft from a school pantry and struggle to sleep through a loud festival offer many more laughs than the cutesy voice-overs.
Early on, the villains of the piece are bullying alpha male Raja and his female cohorts, known as the “Sisterhood.” They get brought down a notch when an even worse bad guy, a scarred marauder called Lex, drives the troop out of Castle Rock. Lex and his crew are like the jungle’s Sons of Anarchy, and their thuggery is borderline cartoonish. At least the incident pushes the “good” monkeys into a city, where the lowborn members teach the snobs a thing or two about survival.
There’s no telling how much of the story really played out this way and how much has been invented to make the movie more interesting. True to form, the Disneynature crew spent years filming the monkeys, and there’s plenty to admire about the company’s desire to show the world how remarkable these creatures are (and to donate millions to conservation groups).
All of this would be just as impressive without the anthropomorphism, but if that’s what it takes to keep kids interested in preserving their planet, it’s worth a few cringe-worthy puns.
Rated G | Time: 1:21