7 out of 10
Narrated by Tina Fey
Directed by Richard Raymond
“Monkey Kingdom” is a fascinating look at a group of macaques living amid ancient ruins in the rain forests of Sri Lanka. While it does get a little preachy, it features amazing footage of the monkeys and fun narration by Tina Fey.
“Monkey Kingdom” follows a group of Toque Macaques living amid temple ruins in Sri Lanka. Led by Raja, they have a complex social structure with upper class monkeys as well as a lower class. The story follows Maya, a female member of the lower class of macaques. Maya faces many challenges. She must forage in more dangerous areas for food than the upper class. She must compete with the older privileged females for the attention of males. She also must face the many predators of the jungle. But when she has a young son named Kip, many new challenges arise for Maya.
“Monkey Kingdom” is rated G.
I really enjoy nature documentaries, but I’ve seen so many over the years that I really appreciate the ones that teach me something new or show me something I’ve never seen before. “Monkey Kingdom” does a little of both.
I knew that apes in general had social structures, but this documentary does a good job of delving deeper into how it functions. You learn that the lower class monkeys have a unique diet because they must forage in different areas than the lower class. You see how some of the upper class females will steal some of the babies of the lower class for fun or intimidation. And you learn the mannerisms of a lower class male trying to become a member of a new troop. (It’s rather amusing to see Kumar clack his teeth together as a sign of friendship to the other monkeys.) It’s really interesting to learn how they interact and to see those mannerisms later in the film and understand what they mean.
As for new footage, “Monkey Kingdom” shows them diving underwater in an attempt to find food. I don’t know how they got the footage, but it was unique. Other scenes show the macaques snatching flying termites out of the sky for an annual buffet. (I couldn’t help but think it would have been interesting in 3D.) The documentary also shows the macaques interacting with other creatures in the jungle. They harass a mongoose, snatch food from an extraordinarily patient squirrel, and share their home with sloth bears. Scenes with the other animals add a bit of variety to the mix. But all of the nature footage is contrasted with scenes of the monkeys in the city. It’s amazing to see them go from sleeping in the trees to sleeping in a cell phone tower. You see them go from playing with a mongoose to playing with a dog. You see them eating bugs and eating pink birthday cake in someone’s kitchen. It’s quite interesting to go from viewing them in their natural habitat to seeing them adapt to survive in a bustling city. Not many other nature documentaries offer such a perspective.
The film is narrated by Tina Fey and she does a fine job. She delivers the dialogue straight 80% of the time, but then jokes around the remaining 20%. Her humor fits well with the footage and helps build the characters of each of the macaques from the 40-year-old grandfather monkey to the newborn Kip. She does a great job entertaining children as well as adults.
What Didn’t Work:
In an effort to make parallels between the humans and the macaques, the documentary really plays up the struggle between the upper class and lower class. But in doing so, it feels like it starts straying into the realm of politics. “Monkey Kingdom” portrays Maya as a lower class single mom fighting the oppressive upper class who keeps her down. While there are some similarities to that situation in the human world, it’s a bit of a stretch in the monkey world. And you have to be careful carrying the human analogies too far. By the end of the film, Maya’s mate Kumar runs the troop and Maya becomes an upper class macaque because he favors her. Tina Fey triumphantly declares that Maya and her offspring are now safer because of Maya’s efforts. Welllll…if you continue the human analogy, Maya essentially mated with an up and coming male and made him her baby daddy. That’s how she found success. She technically is a macaque gold digger. I get what they were trying to do, but it felt a bit forced.
The Bottom Line:
“Monkey Kingdom” is a fun nature documentary for those 10 and under. And adults will enjoy seeing a corner of the world that may be new to them while seeing their children marvel at nature. It’s worth checking out.