Primating rituals

Disney film explores 'Monkey Kingdom'

Fans of "The Ricky Gervais Show" quiver with pleasure at the phrase "Monkey News," the name of a hilarious recurring segment involving a dollop of news and a metric ton of urban legend involving monkeys and chimps. My mind couldn't help but drift to "Monkey News" during the new Disneynature film "Monkey Kingdom," which bends the nature of documentary to construct a dubious but kid-friendly narrative.

Like "African Cats," "Chimpanzee" and "Bears" before it, "Monkey Kingdom" vigorously anthropomorphizes a handful of representative animals into easily digested human archetypes. In the Sri Lankan jungle, filmmakers Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill observe a group of macaques over a period of months as the monkeys go about the rituals of survival: acquiring food, dodging predators and mating. Cheeky narration delivered by Tina Fey abets hard-working editors to piece together a story arc from the details at hand.

"Low-born commoner" Maya struggles to win food at "Castle Rock," an area dominated by alpha male Raja and "high-born" trio "The Sisterhood." This almost Shakespearean pastiche thickens when Maya mates with handsome stranger Kumar (introduced to the tune of, ahem, "Whatta Man") and produces baby Kip, who Maya must (at least briefly) raise as a single mother. Oh, and that Grandpa is quite a card.

These venial sins continue the film series' tradition of ascribing human motivations to animal actions, though "Monkey Kingdom" is rarely egregious in this respect. The monkeys are clearly eating, grooming and mating as advertised. On the other hand, Fey's description of Maya, "like any mother," wishing "to freeze this moment in time" as she grips her offspring tightly is the sort of bit that crosses the line into human psychology.

Mortal sins -- as far as documentary filmmaking goes -- come in the form of staging scenes, conflating timelines or otherwise mischaracterizing footage, all of which "Monkey Kingdom" does. The tactic is particularly obvious in a sequence that supposedly captures footage of monkeys raiding a home on the day of a child's birthday party (to a "Mission: Impossible" sound-alike heist theme), though plenty of other scenes seem dubious to an adult trying to assess to what extent we're witnessing man-ufactured monkey life.

All that aside, just the raw footage has its own high-def, glorious value, in part aesthetic and in part academic. Disney is selling short older kids by condescending to them, but also inviting younger kids to be interested in the natural world. Maybe we should all ignore the men and women behind the curtain and simply enjoy the underwater shots of monkeys swimming.

Rated G. One hour, 21 minutes.


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