Is a Disney movie really a Disney movie without a princess storyline? Apparently not. Even the new nature documentary “Monkey Kingdom” comes complete with a princess-to-be, a prince — or alpha male, to be more precise — and three annoying antagonists simply referred to as “the sisters,” bringing the hierarchy of animal life in animated movies like “The Lion King” to life.
The film follows a troop of monkeys who live in a place befittingly called “Rock Castle” in Sri Lanka. The heroine of our story is Maya, a blond-headed, toque macaque monkey who ranks lowly in the troop’s hierarchical structure. Because of her social status, Maya has the slimmest pickings when it comes to food, but after giving birth to her son Kip, she is forced to find a way to overcome the class system in order to feed her newborn child.
Anyone who writes off “Monkey Kingdom” as something solely meant for kids is doing a great injustice to themselves. In fact, it might even might be questioned whether or not children can fully understand or appreciate some of the dark undertones this film has to offer. All throughout the film, the audience is faced with the issue of class, which may be a surprise for many, since monkeys are typically viewed as barbaric. However, these animals have a highly organized arrangement, one that can never be disrupted without very severe consequences.
Monkeys are born into their social positions, and it’s almost impossible to move up. The highest-ranked monkeys get to eat from the top of the trees, where the ripest and freshest fruit is. Those lower have to eat from the bottom, where there is barely anything. Anyone who tries to change this system or offends one of the higher-ups, if not killed, could be exiled. And for a petite toque macaque monkey whose predators range from cheetahs to pythons, being alone can pose great danger. So they are forced to stay, forever locked in the lowly seat into which they were just unlucky enough to be born.
The genius of this film lies in how subtly and cleverly it begins to suggest that our idea of a social hierarchy is not one born of man’s ever-evolving intelligence, but is in fact a primitive instinct. From camera angles highlighting the animals’ empathetic expressions down to the way the film captures actions such as how they take care of the sick or mourn the death of a community member, the parallels are endless.This forces the viewer to question just how much we as humans are different from animals and in what that means.
The biggest flaw of this documentary is that there is a question of authenticity. At times, certain aspects of the plot seemed a little bit too convenient as to have not been scripted. One must also wonder if the monkeys’ attitudes and behavior were influenced by the fact that their environment was probably encroached upon by numerous cameramen, directors and producers. And because of this, the audience may find themselves a little less emotionally invested or sympathetic because of this skepticism.
Aside from this factor, the film is well-crafted in that it tells the story of these monkeys in a way that is very nontraditional for nature documentaries. Because of how skillfully each of these monkeys is showcased with different personalities and temperaments, the fact that they are animals becomes irrelevant. Instead, the focus is solely on their way of life in such a tumultuous setting. While it may seem strange to say such things about a film whose main characters happen to be animals, it is true. Perhaps, for this reason, the film is successful.
Maya, our heroine, will have you rooting for her the way you root for any other protagonist in your favorite book or show. Blame it on the persuasive voice-overs or well-chosen music that really plays upon the dramatics, but “Monkey Kingdom” is a bit like your favorite Disney fairytale, and Maya is the destined princess. While she does meet a prince, she’s no damsel in distress waiting to be saved — she does the saving. And for this reason, observers may come to love the story even more because it is a story of overcoming, a story of survival, and a story of how it is possible, even out of some the most unexpected places, to beat the system.
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