There’s no proselytizing in Monkey Kingdom, the latest in Disneynature’s conservation-minded documentaries. Unlike the teachers’ guide Disney devised to go with it, the film never mentions that the toque macaques it depicts, who live in a picturesque sacred ruin in a Sri Lankan jungle, are part of an endangered species. Instead, the doc aims to cultivate empathy and admiration for these intelligent and highly social beings by filming them at home in their world—and by focusing on Maya, a sweet-faced underdog, and her baby, Kip, whose huge earlobes, gigantic eyes, and squeaky cry make him the epitome of helpless innocence, Gremlins’s Gizmo minus some of the fur.
The anthropomorphizing that has so often marred Disney’s depiction of animals is mercifully subdued, but not entirely absent. The main plotline, Maya’s ascension to a higher status within the troop, appears to be the result of a lucky mating (she teams up with a young male who joins the troop as a low-status outsider and works his way up to the top), but the script repeatedly describes it as her “fight” to “beat the odds.” There are also times when you may wonder if some drama was created in the editing room. In one sequence, Kip is supposedly taken from Maya by one of the high-born sisters who lord it over her. Maya is then shown wandering the jungle searching for him for what we’re told is hours while the sister plays with Kip, until she finally loses interest and he sneaks off into the jungle, where he’s reunited with his mother. Each individual scene—the sister plucking Kip off a tree he’s clinging to and playing with him, Maya calling out as she wanders through the jungle, mother and baby coming together and clinging to one another—is clearly unstaged, yet it’s unclear whether they happened for the reasons described or in that particular sequence. What’s more, the story sounds a bit dubious: If she couldn’t find Kip, wouldn’t Maya look for him on the rock that’s the center of their social world, where the sister is shown playing with him?
But if sequences like that occasionally raise doubts about the documentary’s accuracy, most of the film appears to be solidly committed to showing how monkeys in general, and these monkeys in particular, live in the wild. Tina Fey’s genial, sometimes slightly goofy voiceover explains what many of Maya’s scenes demonstrate: being part of the troop’s lowest social class complicates every facet of Maya’s life, from where she sleeps (the “high-borns” get the sunnier, warmer branches) to what she eats (Maya must forage in dangerous places or eat unripe fruit while higher-caste monkeys monopolize the safest food sources and the tastiest tidbits). Leaving the parallels to human society to speak for themselves, the filmmakers let the monkeys be monkeys, exploring their social structure and capturing intimate close-ups as they do things like sleep, eat, play, groom each other, cuddle their infants, and interact with a squirrel, a mongoose, and a dog, among other animals. (The monkeys are completely comfortable with the cameras and crew, as behind-the-scenes shots that run over the final credits confirm, showing curious macaques walking right onto the equipment to check it out.)
The cameras are also there for some high drama. They capture a turf battle with a rival troop that leaves one member of Maya’s community dead and the rest homeless, then follow the macaques on a perilous trek into town to nurse their wounds and steal food from humans until they’re ready to go back and reclaim their home. The filmmakers even go underwater with Maya and other “low-borns” as they dive into a predator-infested pond looking for food, their excursion ending in a mad rush to shore as a seven-foot monitor lizard slides into the water to hunt the hunters.
Despite unvarnished dangers like these, however, this G-rated film remains upbeat. The jungle, often shot in lambent light, seems sometimes perilous and sometimes homey, but always fully alive, the site of magical sights like a leopard on the prowl and an annual invasion of winged termites. And interspersed with scenes from the day-to-day lives of Maya and her fellow macaques are glamorous close-ups of family members huddled together, slow-mo or backlit scenes of the monkeys at play, and pop-scored montages (the first is set to the theme song from The Monkees). The cumulative effect is cheerily life-affirming, a bracing infusion of macaque-style joie de vivre.