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Monkey Kingdom

(2015) ** 1/2 G
81 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Alastair Fothergill. Cast: Tina Fey.

/content/films/4785/1.jpgFans of The Ricky Gervais Show quiver with pleasure at the phrase "Monkey News," the name of a hilarious recurring segment involving a dollop of news and a metric ton of urban legend involving monkeys and chimps. My mind couldn't help but drift to "Monkey News" during the new DisneyNature film Monkey Kingdom, which bends the nature of documentary to construct a dubious but kid-friendly narrative.

Like African Cats, Chimpanzee, and Bears before it, Monkey Kingdom vigorously anthropomorphizes a handful of representative animals into easily digested human archetypes. In the Sri Lankan jungle, filmmakers Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill observe a group of macaques over a period of months, as they go about the rituals of survival: acquiring food, dodging predators, and mating. Cheeky narration delivered by Tina Fey abets hard-working editors to piece together a story arc from the details at hand.

"Low-born" "commoner" Maya struggles to win food at "Castle Rock," an area dominated by alpha male Raja and "high-born" trio "The Sisterhood." This almost Shakespearean pastiche thickens when Maya mates with handsome stranger Kumar (introduced to the tune of, ahem, "What a Man") and produces baby Kip, who Maya must (at least briefly) raise as a single mother. Oh, and that Grandpa is quite a card.

These venial sins continue the film series' tradition of ascribing human motivations to animal actions, though "Monkey Kingdom" is rarely egregious in this respect. The monkeys are clearly eating, grooming, and mating as advertised, if it's somewhat less clear that they're playing when depicted as such. On the other hand, Fey's description of Maya, "like any mother," wishing "to freeze this moment in time" as she grips Kip is the sort of bit that crosses the line into human psychology.

Mortal sins—as far as documentary filmmaking goes—come in the form of staging scenes, conflating timelines, or otherwise mischaracterizing footage, in which Monkey Kingdom pretty obviously engages. The tactic is particularly obvious in a sequence that supposedly captures footage of monkeys raiding a home on the day of a child's birthday party (to a Mission: Impossible-soundalike heist theme), though plenty more seems dubious to an adult trying to assess to what extent we're witnessing man-ufactured monkey life.

All that aside, just staring at the raw footage, shot by shot, has its own hi-def, glorious value, in part aesthetic and in part academic. Disney is selling short older kids by condescending to them, but also inviting younger kids to be interested in the natural world, so it's entirely possible that we should all just pay no attention to the men and women behind the curtain and simply enjoy the underwater photography of monkeys swimming.

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