Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
This originally ran on VeryAware.com
Audiences have marveled at the majesty of the Disneynature films since they first launched in 2008. We traveled across the Earth in EARTH, crossed oceans in OCEANS, bravely ventured out into the wild in AFRICAN CATS and into the rainforest in CHIMPANZEE. Now with the 8th true life adventure in the company’s canon, MONKEY KINGDOM, director Mark Linfield and co-director Alistair Fothergill take us on a breathtaking, astounding and incredible journey into the tropical jungles of Sri Lanka, India, into a world filled with mysticism and lots of monkey-ing around. Narrated by Tina Fey, whose quick wit and comedic edge make the film function magnificently, the tale (tail?) is something the whole family can enjoy – even the ones who may be slightly apprehensive about seeing Mother Nature’s cruelty.
Macaque monkeys: They’re just like us. At least that’s what we learn almost immediately here. There are social structures, royal hierarchies and rules for survival. While it’s a monkey-swat-monkey world out there, this new dynasty that roams the ancient ruins is filled with many interesting characters. Alpha male Raja is the king, ruling over the land with a selfish and steely composure. Next in line are “the sisters,” a group of red-faced, ruthless ladies no one dares to cross. Born into privilege, they know nothing but life at the top of the fig tree, the symbol for stature at Castle Rock (not to be confused with the film company). At the bottom of the heap is our three-freckled, blonde-bobbed heroine, Maya. This scrappy, smart spitfire knows just how to make her way to a better life. It’s the same way any good Beverly Hills social climber knows: by attaching herself to the right guy. In this case the guy is hunky Kumar, a drifter in search of White Castle a new family. After their adorable, big-eyed son Kip is born, she has a reason to beat the system. However, when a neighboring gang of monkeys led by Lex (who gives most recent Bond villains a run for their money) seizes their home, the Castle Rock residents must work together to overthrow the powerful new regime.
Though previous DisneyNature films have jerked tears from the eyes of sensitive viewers like me due to the often brutal reality of the wild, the MONKEY KINGDOM chapter is almost completely driven by heart. A mother’s love and desire for a better life for her baby is a powerful, heartwarming and resonant thing. While the filmmakers don’t shy away from showing the jungle as a deadly place for the film’s subjects, since there are predators like monitor lizards (don’t google this or nightmares will ensue), they do soften the death blows, making it easily understandable and never gratuitously horrific. Best of all, it never condescends to its viewers. Information is dealt out in a palatable, digestible manner.
Helping to break up any saccharine schmaltz is a hefty dose of humor thanks to Fey’s sly commentary track and the filmmakers’ character building. The Castle Rock inhabitants are almost likened to sitcom characters. There’s the crotchety neighbor, a mongoose who some of the monkeys take pleasure in harassing. Also living in the rocks are two cubs and their single momma bear, who’s attempting to dodge the advances of an overly affectionate male suitor. Subtly positioning “The Sisters” as DYNASTY-like characters makes it an entertaining hoot. Plus, there’s a good amount of levity in the picture courtesy of musical cues like THE MONKEES theme song and Salt N’ Pepa’s “Whatta Man” (really). Lots of laughter ensues during the dog play and birthday cake raid sequences.
But perhaps what’s really bound to win audiences over is the striking imagery of a jungle at play. There are a multitude of warm golden moments. They even make eating winged termites look like the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever witnessed – just count me out on eating them.
MONKEY KINGDOM is now available on Blu-ray/ DVD.
The Blu-ray/DVD includes:
- A Special Thank You from Disneynature
- Tales From The Kingdom
- On The Set of MONKEY KINGDOM with Jane Goodall and Wolfgang Dittus
- Disneynature MONKEY KINGDOM: The Conservation Story
- “It’s Our World” Music Video Performed by Jacquie Lee