Monkey Kingdom **1/2

Monkeys, like humans, can be total dicks

Is it worth $10? Yes

Scientists estimate monkey DNA is 93 percent similar to humans, so it’s no surprise that the cutesy Disneynature doc “Monkey Kingdom” includes bad parenting, fights for territory, love and loss, and eating figs. But monkeys, it turns out, have all the social sophistication of the late 18th century French (who were so socially backward it led to the French Revolution, which lasted 10 years).

As explained by Tina Fey’s narration, macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka have a strict social hierarchy. For Maya, there’s nowhere to go but up. Literally. She isn’t allowed in the tree they call home, and at the top of the tree is alpha male Raja and his three red-faced wives, all of whom are awful. Maya eats their scraps if she’s lucky, and their horrible offspring climb all over Maya as if she’s a branch. To put it in true Disney terms, Maya is Cinderella with a bad haircut.

Then magically, Maya meets Kumar, who fancies her but isn’t allowed near her because Raja is possessive. Not because he’s interested in Maya, he’s just a dick. Kumar flees, but not before knocking her up (off screen). Six months later, Kip is born. Baby daddy is nowhere to be found. Maya is a single mom in a community that doesn’t respect her and will offer little help. If she were human she’d apply for welfare. And lest you think it’s unfair to make human comparisons, realize directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill are counting on us to make human comparisons when they want us to relate to the family and friendship aspects, so it’s perfectly reasonable to criticize the film on the same grounds.

“Monkey Kingdom” is a fascinating watch only in the sense that the filmmakers have no idea how the story will play out as they’re shooting it, nor do they know how long it’s going to take to shoot enough footage to find a story to tell. It runs 81 minutes (which is long enough), but there must be weeks’ worth of footage on the cutting room floor because nothing of interest happens.

To spice things up Linfield and Fothergill have Fey recite jokes so horrible not even Trevor Noah would enjoy them. “Don’t mess with the hair” as babies crawl all over Maya. “Do you speak monkey?” as the macaques encounter a dog while in town. And so on. I know this is G-rated and for kids, but a joke shouldn’t leave a gnawing, uneasy feeling in your stomach.

“Monkey Kingdom” has its sweet moments – the playful romping is endearing, and scenes of monkeys raiding a school and marketplace are amusing – and given that kids are likely to learn from it and leave with a smile, it deserves a moderate recommendation. Adults who aren’t interested in monkeys but take their kids anyway should consider it naptime.

Did you know?
For every ticket sold opening week (April 17-23, 2015) Disneynature will make a donation to Conservation International, a group that protects monkeys and other endangered species in their natural habitats. Disneynature has made a similar gesture after the opening week of all its films (“Bears,” “Chimpanzee,” “African Cats,” etc.). 

Buy tickets to Monkey Kingdom on Fandango now. Opens April 17.

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