Friday, April 17, 2015

Monkey Kingdom: Too much monkey business

Monkey Kingdom (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

At its better moments, particularly with respect to the harsh caste system practiced by its small toque macaque stars, this new Disneynature docu-drama is an engaging blend of intimate footage and informative commentary.

Our macaque heroine, Maya, is caught during a quiet
moment with her newborn son, Kip. Sadly, keeping that
little guy well-nourished is destined to become a
constant problem.
Sadly, these “earnest” sequences are blended with the sort of contrived, slapstick nonsense that epitomized bad Disney comedies from the late 1960s and early ’70s: the moments when mischievous animals broke into a paint factory, or some poor housewife’s kitchen, and dumped/destroyed all the contents in a ghastly — but always colorful — display of dripping, gooey glop.

I’d have thought Disney had moved beyond such twaddle, particularly given the thoughtful, intelligent approach of its initial nature documentaries: Earth, Oceans, Wings of Life and several others. But no, director Mark Linfield signals his intentions right from the top, as his simian protagonists run, leap and swing into view accompanied by ... Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s theme to the 1960s TV series The Monkees, performed by no less than ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz.

The film never fully recovers.

Indeed, such “lighter” elements mock what should have been a serious subject. This ain’t the ’60s any more, folks; informed, sophisticated productions from BBC America and the Discovery Channel have taught us to expect much, much more from nature documentaries.

Yes, toque macaque are cute — in an unusual sort of way — and their behaviors can be hilarious. But that doesn’t justify a trivial tone and unnatural “storyline” that insults our intelligence, while minimizing the very real issues that constantly imperil this species, above and beyond the jealously guarded cliques within a single tribe.

What ... just because they’re monkeys, they don’t merit the same respectful treatment accorded, say, the ursine stars of the Disneynature film Bears? Puh-leaze.

We meet our small, furry heroine, Maya, at the beginning of an average day for her tribe. She endures at the bottom of a rigid social order governed by an alpha male named Raja and his three bitchy concubines, collectively known as “the Sisterhood.” The tribe lives in one of the many deserted ancient cities dotting the northeastern portion of the island nation of Sri Lanka. The stone ruins serve as both playground and sanctuary, as does the commanding “Castle Rock” from which Raja often surveys his domain.

As a “low-born” member of the tribe, Maya must be content with meager leftovers when it comes to food, water and shelter. Raja, his mates and their offspring are privileged to nibble on the ripest figs at the top of their most cherished lunch spot; lesser tribe members are found on the tree’s progressively lower branches, where the figs aren’t as tasty. Maya isn’t even permitted in the tree; she must scavenge discarded bits from the ground below.

This unyielding social order isn’t open to negotiation; it simply is. But necessity is the mother of invention, even among monkeys; hungry low-borns become more resourceful, in their search for food, and we get a sense that Maya is quite capable. There’s no denying the calculating intelligence behind her watchful gaze.

The tribal routine is interrupted briefly by the arrival of Kumar, a young male that has left his birth troop, and is seeking a new place to settle. He has the potential to become a future alpha male, and so Maya bonds with him. This could be mere chance; it also could reflect the sort of Machiavellian, long-range planning characteristic of Cersei Lannister, in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Actually, it would be nice to know if young female macaques are that clever, but Tina Fey’s deliberately droll, off-camera narration never offers anything that helpful.

Sadly, Kumar overplays his hand, angering Raja, and is expelled from the tribe. But not before leaving Maya a gift: Kip, a precocious, playful and frighteningly vulnerable son, born several months later.

Kip’s presence makes Maya more determined; motherhood exerts its own demands. But even that bond is inconsequential in the face of established order, and this film’s one genuinely scary sequence comes when the Sisterhood angrily kidnaps young Kip. Would they harm or even kill the infant monkey?

Raja soon has more serious issues: the assault of a rival troop, led by a nasty-looking macaque with a split lip, named Lex. Thanks to ill-advised battle tactics, Raja and his tribe are driven out of their protective home, and forced to survive on the run.

This is where Linfield’s film goes off the rails, because our macaques temporarily re-locate in a nearby (human) town, where they make merry while stealing food, trinkets and anything not nailed down from a massive outdoor market. The tone here is jolly and frivolous, as is Fey’s narration: a goofy, larkish interlude that attempts (and fails) to obscure the fact that monkeys forced to behave this way are starving, and likely deprived of their preferred habitat (the latter being accurate, but not for the reasons suggested by this simplistic narrative).

Granted, this detour into man-made civilization isn’t as eye-rollingly dumb and messy as an earlier invasion of a child’s birthday party, as Maya and her low-born peers trash cake, candy, party favors and the conveniently precarious contents of this modest home. The manipulation becomes blatant here, and even worse when Raja’s tribe decides to return to Castle Rock, and re-claim their paradise.

Really? Somehow, I remain unconvinced that this ever would happen.

Granted, it’s perfectly reasonable for Linfield and his crew to construct a story with heroes, villains and appealing supporting players, in order to better engage our hearts and minds. I get that. But this particular story too frequently feels artificial and — worse yet — designed specifically for “cute monkey shenanigans.”

That undercuts the beauty and awesome splendor of the authentic natural moments, such as the airborne banquet that arrives only once each year, with the emergence of millions of alates (winged swarming termites). The resulting feast is both euphoric and astonishing, with our macaques grabbing fistfuls of tasty insects alongside birds and even scorpions.

The other stunner comes when Maya and her macaque friends prove to be capable underwater swimmers, particularly while searching for lily seed heads. The close-up cinematography, during this underwater interval, is particularly remarkable.

Venturing into a pond comes with risks, however, in the form of a massive monitor lizard: a predator which, along with stealthy leopards, would love to make lunch of unwary monkeys.

Other incidental critters include elephants, sloth bears, a playful mongoose and the amusingly docile langur monkeys. The latter look regal, their dark faces framed by snow-white hair, but they’re oddly passive; the macaques appear to treat them as pets, rather than peers. It’s a fascinating relationship and — again — one bereft of truly useful commentary or explanation.

Fey certainly deserves credit for her witty asides and deft comic timing; I’ve no doubt she was hired for her delightfully jokey tone. The problem is that this “lighter side” overwhelms the production, making it difficult to respect anything else. The frivolous mood is exacerbated further by the insertion of pop tunes intended to make sport of macaque behavior, as when pop star Nikki croons “What a Man” behind Maya’s first encounter with Kumar. Seriously?

And I can’t help feeling that the original song “It’s Our World” — performed by The Voice runner-up Jacquie Lee — has less to do with augmenting this film’s crowd-pleasing finale, and more to do with selling digital downloads.

I hate to sound so mean-spirited about what undoubtedly represents dedicated, heartfelt work on the part of an extensive film crew that spent three years obtaining the footage needed for this film. No question: Anything that raises mainstream awareness of wildlife conservation efforts is valuable.

I just wish that the approach, in this case, better reflected the gravity of that mission.

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