New rule: All Disneynature films must be narrated by Tina Fey.
Fey’s already proved that she can make almost anything entertaining, including the Golden Globe awards. She has far more to work with in “Monkey Kingdom,” which supplies a cast of cute or at least weirdly captivating animals engaged in cute or at least weirdly captivating behaviors. There’s also an impressive amount of research, field work, and commitment involved in this latest effort from Disneynature, the studio that brought us “Oceans,” “African Cats,” “Bears,” etc. There’s a compelling focus, too — the complex hierarchical relationships of toque macaque monkeys living among ancient temple ruins in a secluded patch of Sri Lanka, where daily life plays out with more melodrama and class warfare than a presidential campaign.
The trouble comes if you prefer your nature documentaries unscripted and without a visible human footprint. But we’ll get to that.
First, a word to parents, since this film is rated G: There’s nothing here that should provoke nightmares, unless your little ones are bothered by even a hint of predators or peril. There are a few animal injuries and deaths — none graphic — and several chunks of the narrative could be less than engaging to 5-year-olds who are not sociology majors. They’ll still be won over by scenes of macaques clowning around, with Fey providing the best possible reading (and a fair amount of embellishment, one can assume) of writer-director Mark Linfield’s script.
Linfield and co-director Alastair Fothergill are Disneynature veterans (“Chimpanzee” and “Earth” are among their collaborations), and it shows. “Monkey Kingdom” is nothing if not polished. Beautifully shot by Martyn Colbeck and Gavin Thurston without leaning on 3-D/IMAX bling, it offers what always feels like a carefully sculpted representation of the macaque existence — light on the science, heavy on the anthropomorphic analogies. That is both a compliment and a criticism.
The lush kingdom laid bare here is ruled by an alpha male named Raja and a trio of snobby, red-faced females dubbed “The Sisterhood.” They sit way atop the social ladder, while at the very bottom is a female named Maya. Maya looks like Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs.”
One day, Maya meets Kumar, a mop-topped vagabond who enters to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man” on the soundtrack. Before Raja can drive off Kumar, the new guy apparently gets it on with Maya (we see no more of their courtship than a walk in the woods) and the result is a son, Kip. Kip looks like one of those plastic troll dolls, minus the colorful hair.
Now we get to watch Maya and Kip bond, withstand much adversity, and claw their way to the top. Kumar returns just before a rival tribe leader (the snaggletoothed Lex, perfectly cast) drives Maya’s tribe from their home near the temple out into the wilderness. They wander all the way to a city, where they get into some very amusing trouble before returning to reclaim their beloved rocky outcropping.
If you think that watching monkeys steal food and stuff their faces sounds funny, you’re right. If you think those urban jungle encounters seem somewhat orchestrated, or at least facilitated by the filmmakers, you’re not alone. It’s a convenient narrative, and the cameras are at every right angle to capture it, just as they are during a macaque home invasion when the tribe gleefully tears up a pantry and gorges on some poor kid’s pink birthday cake. What luck that no humans stepped in to stop them!
Fey’s delivery makes the script feel less scripted, and allows the audience to care less when the text overreaches and falls flat. “Like any mother, Maya probably wants to freeze her child in time,” the narrator is made to say at one point. Just as probably, you’re thinking, she wants him to stop hanging from her nipples as though they’re subway straps. Neither wish is practical in nature, however.
When the monkeys endeavor to play with a dog they encounter in the city, it’s Fey’s playful edge as the voice of the primates (“Dude, what are you?”) that gives the scene true comic punch. That’s more than many animated films can boast. It’s certainly more than you get with most romantic comedies.
It’s been clear for awhile now that Tina Fey rules. “Monkey Kingdom” is just the latest entertainment to benefit.Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.