Life is an adventure for Maya, the clever and resourceful blonde-bobbed monkey in 'Monkey Kingdom.' Set among ancient ruins in the storied jungles of South Asia, Maya's world is forever changed when she welcomes her son, Kip, into her complicated extended family. Like all families, Maya's family has more than its share of colorful personalities, and she's determined to give her son a leg up on the social ladder. When their longtime home at Castle Rock is taken over by powerful neighboring monkeys, Maya's whole family is forced to relocate, and she uses her street smarts and ingenuity to lead them to untapped resources amidst strange new creatures and unsettling surroundings. Ultimately, they will all have to work together to reclaim Castle Rock, where Maya can hopefully realize her dreams for her son's future.
Disneynature's ability to anthropomorphize all the natural world is its greatest strength and, conversely, its most glaring weakness. Nowhere is that more prominent than in 'Monkey Kingdom,' a documentary about a family group of macaque monkeys living among ancient ruins in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Specifically, the movie follows the struggles of a macaque they've named Maya.
Maya's plight is the cornerstone of the movie. This is where the anthropomorphizing works. The narration, voiced by Tina Fey, paints effortlessly paints a picture of a rigid social structure at play. Without the guidance we wouldn't know exactly what was happening as Maya interacts with the other monkeys. Because of it we're able to connect with her, and commiserate.
See macaques are very social creatures, so much in fact that they naturally create social hierarchies within their group. Maya belongs to the lowest of the low. The film calls them low-borns, because each social strata is dependent on where you live within the canopy. The royalty – which includes the alpha male and his trophy wives – live at the tip-top eating all the best fruit and getting all the best sun. Maya's group lives on the jungle floor, scavenging for scraps and making sure to keep their distance from the high-born, less they get smacked, bit, or chased off.
Maya's story is made all the more harrowing when she ends up having a baby that she must care for. The life of a macaque isn't all about picking bugs out of your friend's fur and lounging about in the trees. It's a fight for survival as the high-born monkeys corner all the good food sources, and Maya and the low-borns are forced to find food on their own.
As with past Disneynature films the narration also contains its fair share of eye-rolling jokes, and cutesy assumptions on what the monkeys must be thinking at that very moment. Many of these moments are just so Tina Fey, that you can tell they were written just for her type of humor. That's not a good thing. Fey's humor doesn't feel like it works here. Perhaps it's just the nature purist in me, but I much prefer the matter-of-fact narration of David Attenborough.
It's true that Disneynature films skew younger. They're good documentaries for introducing kids to the vast natural world around them. True to form 'Monkey Kingdom' forgoes most of the extreme violence found in nature. There's no disguising that it's Disneyfication is directly aimed at younger viewers and getting them interested in the animal kingdom.
When Fey's narration gets too out of control 'Monkey Kingdom' ventures into corny territory. However, the way the film is constructed provides us an inside look into monkey sociology that we might not have seen otherwise. Maya's story is instantly relatable and you can't help but root for her.
There's an element to the proceedings where you can't help but think, "Hey, this story sounds too good to be true." It appears, on the surface, to be too be tailor made for a Disney movie. Maya is the strong heroine trying to buck the system; Raja is the dominant alpha male keeping everyone in line; Kumar is the young upstart who catches Maya's eye; the sisters are Raja's evil harem who relentlessly torture Maya; and then there's the challenger to Raja's throne, Lex, a perfect Disney villain complete with nasty facial scars from previous battles. So, yeah, at times it almost feels perfectly manipulated.
In the end though, it's a patented Disneynature film. Great for kids, so-so for the adults. The narration paints a story of harrowing class warfare, but also interjects it with banal jokes and assumptions about the monkey's thoughts. There comes a time where you just need to let the viewer try to understand what's happening.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a 2-disc set that comes with a 50GB Blu-ray and a DVD. There's also a Disney Digital Copy included, which you activate by entering in your Disney Movie Rewards code.
The 1080p AVC-encoded visual presentation here is pretty fantastic. It compares rather nicely to Disneynature's 'Wings of Life' which boasted extreme visual clarity, vibrant colors, and exciting detail.
Fine detail is extraordinary. 'Monkey Kingdom' doesn't feature as many ultra-close-ups as 'Wings of Life' did, considering the distance the filmmakers had to keep from the monkeys, but it does provide a wide variety of lushly rendered mid- and long-range shots. Everything is visible here, even in a jungle as dense as this. Individual leaves and flowers are easily seen. Even in the thickness of the foliage, detail is abundant. There's never a moment where clarity is trumped by the abundance of the forest.
Colors are very bold. Green dominates the landscape as the monkeys hop through verdant trees. Earth tones like the browns of the jungle floor or the grays of the ruins, are strong too. Black areas as deep, and shadows are consistently devoid of banding. It's an all-around good looking presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix offers up a well-rounded mix that immerses the viewer in the jungles of Sri Lanka. The array of sounds filling up each channel provide one of the better listening experiences for a nature documentary.
The rear channels flourish with all sorts of jungle-produced sounds. Chirping birds, whooping monkeys, and growling sloth bears fill up the audioscape. There's a rainstorm that engulfs each channel providing a like-you're-there experience. The soundtrack, while painfully obvious at times, is nonetheless presented clearly filling up the listening environment with all sorts of pop music that mirrors what's happening on screen.
The narration is presented cleanly in the center channel, and never wavers. There's even some time for low-end frequencies to shine. When Maya's group is attacked by a rival monkey clan the tension on the soundtrack ratchets up and the bass is given a nice workout.
While 'Monkey Kingdom' can border on the corny, there is a palpable tension here. Maya is an easy protagonist to cheer for. Her story is quite extraordinary and unbelievably mirrors a Disney narrative almost too perfectly. It does provide a great introduction to the natural world for kids, but adults who prefer BBC-produced nature documentaries might find it lacking. Though, with its stellar video and audio, 'Monkey Kingdom' is recommended.