Monkey Kingdom

Disney’s latest nature documentary, in honor of Earth Day, opens with magnificent misty views of a lush Sri Lankan jungle where long-abandoned temples poke through treetops. The eerie silence makes it appear the place is uninhabited. But suddenly, the screen is filled with dozens of screaming macaque monkeys who swing from vines, swat playfully at one...read more

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Reviewed by Tim Holland
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Disney’s latest nature documentary, in honor of Earth Day, opens with magnificent misty views of a lush Sri Lankan jungle where long-abandoned temples poke through treetops. The eerie silence makes it appear the place is uninhabited. But suddenly, the screen is filled with dozens of screaming macaque monkeys who swing from vines, swat playfully at one another, and generally appear to be having a grand ole time. Their liveliness is underscored by The Monkees theme song that accompanies their carefree cavorting. However, amid all the monkeyshine a strict social order exists, made up of high-born and low-born simians, which determines what one eats, where one sleeps, and from whom one takes orders. Among the low-rung monkeys is Maya, a resourceful 8-year-old female, who quickly takes center stage and becomes the story’s heroine.

Maya’s hardscrabble tale is told by Tina Fey, whose good-humored, efficient narration, along with the film’s sharp editing and sumptuous, unobtrusive cinematography, keeps the narrative flowing at a brisk pace. Maya’s story, which mainly focuses on her attempts to provide for her baby Kip and advance upwards through her society’s rigid social structure, was shot over three years by directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill. The pair have done a great job of paring down their extensive footage to craft an uplifting drama -- true or not -- that fits nicely in a Disney canon that emphasizes female empowerment.

But Maya isn’t the only character in this unfolding yarn. For a heroine to shine, she needs evildoers to stand in her way so she can overcome their cruel treatment and constant threats. And Maya has plenty of self-absorbed simians in her life. There is Raja, the monkey king, who rules with absolute authority, and three red-faced queens who enjoy their regal standing and aren’t about to allow anyone, especially another female, to intrude on their privileged position. And then there are outside dangers that include a menacing 7-foot-long monitor lizard and an army of rival monkeys who battle Maya’s tribe for control of Castle Rock, a safe shelter from the jungle’s thunderous storms.

Monkey Kingdom, naturally, is filled with spectacular jungle images of monkeys jumping from tree to tree, swimming underwater, and fighting off predators. But the movie is at its best when the monkeys are forced out of their natural habitat and invade a nearby village, where they wreak havoc in a home preparing for a birthday party, and enter a town where they swipe food from open markets and street vendors, and take up residence atop a cell-phone tower. While it’s a hoot to watch, it does raise the question of how much of these proceedings were staged and how much unfolded naturally. It’s also unfortunate that Maya’s “hunky monkey” mate, Kumar, is given such short shrift in the story, since it’s actually his brave efforts that eventually enable the family to move to the top rung on the social ladder.

But these are minor complaints. While there may be some funky monkey business going on behind the scenes, what’s onscreen is nothing short of spectacular, and will certainly captivate and enthrall viewers of all ages.

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  • Released: 2015
  • Rating: G
  • Review: Disney’s latest nature documentary, in honor of Earth Day, opens with magnificent misty views of a lush Sri Lankan jungle where long-abandoned temples poke through treetops. The eerie silence makes it appear the place is uninhabited. But suddenly, the scre… (more)

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