In the new Disneynature film “Monkey Kingdom,” which opens Friday, the protagonists, a group of jungle-dwelling toque macaque monkeys, make their screen debut to the theme song from the 1960s sitcom “The Monkees.”
“Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees/
And people say we monkey around.”
Yes, they certainly do monkey around. They groom each other. They dangle from vines. They cannonball into a river.
“I know what you’re thinking,” says narrator Tina Fey. Being a monkey seems like “fun and games.” But the interpersonal order of these toque macaques, who inhabit a “land of myth and legend” that includes an abandoned temple complex in Sri Lanka, is as cutthroat as the high school clique system. Our heroine, Maya, is a “lower born” who dwells at the bottom of that social order. Maya must contend with Raja, the king of Castle Rock, the monkey homeland, as well as a bevy of female toque macaques, a.k.a. “the Sisterhood.” Eventually Maya finds a mate (Kumar) and welcomes her own offspring (Kip). “This is a story of how Maya beats the odds and rises to the top,” Fey says.
Are viewers in store for a just-for-laughs version of the animal kingdom, or something more serious — something more human?
“Monkey Kingdom” is the latest effort from Disneynature, a line of films that began with “Earth” (2007) and includes “Oceans” (2010), “African Cats” (2011), and last year’s “Bears.” The formula is a hit with viewers. Of the six highest-grossing feature-length nature films, five are Disneynature releases, according to Box Office Mojo.
Nature documentaries have changed since the genteel days of Walt Disney himself, who made 13 “True-Life Adventure” motion pictures between 1948 and 1960, or for that matter, Marlin Perkins’s TV program “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” PBS, the BBC, and the “Animal Planet” channel rule the roost. The nature doc box office champ is the French-made “March of the Penguins” (2005), which helped prove that mainstream audiences, and profits, will flock to the normally staid nature documentary genre when filmmakers find that sweet spot between realism and spectacle.
“You do have to walk the line carefully between making a film entertaining and educating,” says Susan Gottlieb, founder of the G2 Green Earth Film Festival, held in October in Venice, Calif. She says that British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough, host and writer of such BBC productions as “Life on Earth,” set “the gold standard” in finding this balance. Attenborough’s “Planet Earth” and “The Blue Planet” series were executive-produced by Alastair Fothergill, who served as co-director and producer on “Monkey Kingdom.”
“If [a nature documentary] is too dry or serious, you will lose those who aren’t already committed,” Gottlieb says. “But if it becomes too much about entertainment then you lose the committed.”
For Disneynature, a compelling story that plucks all the right heartstrings is part of the series’ success. In “Monkey Kingdom,” the monkeys are given pet names. A leader of a rival gang of macaques with a battle-scarred face is named Lex, the perfect Disney villain. The plot is punctuated by a score (by “Shrek” film composer Harry Gregson-Williams) that’s either whimsical or dramatic, as the story demands. But to what extent does a film like “Monkey Kingdom” massage the reality of the monkeys’ lives to create a compelling story?
“[The filmmakers] come from a very strict natural history background,” says M. Sanjayan, Disneynature “ambassador” and executive vice president for Conservation International. “The trick is to never show something that never really happens.”
Alternating between comical and sincere, Fey’s commentary, scripted by writer-co-director Mark Linfield, fills in narrative gaps. “See that move? That’s macaque for ‘back off,’ ” Fey jokes. Introduced to the strains of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” Kumar is “15 pounds of hunky monkey.”
Gottlieb, who hasn’t seen the film, says that while “celebrity narrators do help hype a film and bring viewers in,” she doesn’t think Fey “making ironic commentary is the way to go.”
For his part, Linfield says the “story is true to nature” and the “science is good.” Linfield, who also co-directed the Disneynature films “Chimpanzee” (2012) and “Earth,” spent 1,010 days over 2½ years to capture the toque macaques on location.
“We don’t know the story in advance. We don’t leave it to the cutting room, either.” Linfield says. “We hope interesting things will happen to the lead characters.”
‘[The] story is true to nature. [The] science is good. . . . We don’t know the story in advance.’
But the notion of “character” in nature documentary raises the issue of anthropomorphism. Fey calls a langur, an animal the macaques interact with, “Not the smartest tool in the toolshed.” After the birth of her son Kip, “Maya is consumed by unconditional love,” Fey says in full-on sober mode. (Even in “March of the Penguins,” narrator Morgan Freeman intones “This is a story about love.”)
Is ascribing animals with human characteristics permissible? “The right dose of well-used and measured anthropomorphism or quirky commentary could be just what’s needed to get a conservation message to the biggest audience,” says National Wildlife Federation naturalist Dave Mizejewski. “But it’s all about balance.”
Not all nature experts agree that filmmakers find that equilibrium. “All the animal people I know in the rescue and welfare business pretty much hate all the portrayals of animals in nature films and cartoons,” says Susan Tellem, executive director of American Tortoise Rescue, an organization that protects tortoises and turtles. “There is too much that is contrived and staged.”
A scene where Maya and her monkey troupe raid a Sri Lankan kitchen and gorge on birthday cake is “absolutely fine because you’re showing the monkeys’ natural behaviors,” Linfield says. “It’s an observational documentary.”
Disney itself bristles at the term “documentary” being associated with the Disneynature brand. “We don’t use the word ‘documentary,’ ” a spokesperson says. The company prefers the genre be referred to as “true life adventure” or “nature film.”
To be sure, Disneynature does not aspire to be the BBC. A “nature film” narrated by David Attenborough would not draw the intended audience. These films are “designed for kids,” says Sanjayan.
That said, Sanjayan thinks young viewers are savvy. They know “Monkey Kingdom” is no talking-animal fictional cartoon like “Lion King” or “Bambi,” but they also know the filmmakers take some liberties to craft “a compelling and joyful story.”
“If they are going to give a monkey a name, fair enough. Maya might not call the baby ‘Kip.’ We can’t speak monkey so we have to use our own interpretation,” Sanjayan says. “I think kids are smart. I think kids get it. If you are going to be in this world of magic, that’s OK.”Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.