From the opening moments of the documentary Disney Nature: Monkey Kingdom, you know you are in for a fun time. As the sun rises over the jungles of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and the first monkeys make their way onto the screen, your TV speakers will burst alive to the tune of “Hey Hey, We’re The Monkees”.
It’s the sort of shameless, but thoroughly welcome soundtrack choice that lets you know that you’re not in for a serious David Attenborough-style look into the hidden lives of a colony of monkeys. Monkey Kingdom is 80+ minutes of monkeys living together, playing and doing silly things – all captured gorgeously by the Disney documentarian team of Alastair Fothergil and Mark Linfield. It is joyful, entertaining and educational family-friendly TV.
And did we mention it is narrated by 30 Rock and Wine Country star Tina Fey?
If you’ve watched a lot of nature documentaries before, particularly about monkeys, you may find Monkey Kingdom is a little bit more style over substance than you are used to. But, what this documentary excels at is giving younger viewers an entry point into the complicated social structures of a monkey colony and how that impacts on their quality of life. Plus, it’s incredibly funny and charming.
Viewers will learn quite a bit from the documentary, including the following lessons:
Monkeys have hierarchies
Early on we are introduced to Maya, who was born as a low-level monkey, just like her mother before her. As a low-level member of the community, she is quite literally confined to a life lower to the ground where she is forced to wait for food availability, and even then it isn’t the best quality food available. Instead of the ripe, fresh fruit available to monkeys atop the social ladder (and are thus, atop the tree), she is left to scavenge for scraps that fall to the ground.
The film chronicles Maya’s effort to break free of her pre-destined position in the hierarchy of the community and achieve a new status.
We’re also introduced to the monkeys at the top of the hierarchy. We meet Raja, the male monkey who is at the very top, but also three female monkeys who Tina Fey terms ‘the power brokers’. These three red-faced female monkeys are the monkeys that really run things – and keep Raja at the top.
One of the power brokers.
Monkeys are playful
It’s hardly breaking news to report that monkeys can be playful. But what’s fun to watch here is how the monkeys’ playful behaviour is impacted by the animals that surround them.
Early in the film we watch the monkeys swinging around on vines, but you’ll feel a sense of sadness later on as you watch the baby monkeys not just swinging from vines, but also from other monkeys’ tails as they climb the trees. That’s fine if the parents’ tails are the ones being swung from, but consider low-level Maya. Already low on the social totem-pole, she’s also forced to endure having monkeys who are already higher in social standing swinging from her tail. It’s hard not to feel for Maya as we watch it – she is the hero in this documentary for all of us. She is the 99%.
But we also see monkeys playing with other animals. It’s fun watching them cheekily trying to engage with a mongoose who has found shelter on a large rock formation that many of the monkeys call home. His continued rejection of them inspires them to want to play even more. Even once the mongoose sneaks away, the monkeys continue to look for their play-friend
There’s safety in numbers
Because we’re highly judgmental as viewers, it’s difficult to watch the plight of Maya and wonder why she doesn’t just strike out on her own. She’s less well nourished as other monkeys because of where she sits in the hierarchy – surely she’d be better off elsewhere?
Monkey Kingdom very quickly shows us the benefit for Maya to stick with the colony: It’s safer. We watch during a leopard attack as the giant cat is fended off by the group. Maya cannot strike out on her own – the jungle holds too many dangers for a monkey who doesn’t have the safety of a larger community.
Monkeys are flirts
It turns out that in the monkey kingdom, our beleaguered protagonist Maya is actually a stone-cold fox. When a monkey from outside the group arrives, he immediately starts making eyes at Maya. In fact, she is so charming, new primate Kumar risks being chased away by head monkey Raja if he is busted.
As is the case with all the classic romances, not everything goes smoothly for these monkey lovers. But, in the end, rest assured that monkey love prevails.