Truth in film takes another jolly beating in Disneynature’s Monkey Kingdom, a documentary-like nature flick with the last-century chutzpah to pass off its marvelous footage of some months in the life of a single-mom macaque as a full-fledged princess story, with three acts, a tearful exile, and her ascent, in the final reels, to the throne. (Oops, spoiler for the anthropomorphized-monkey movie.) It’s something like a Cinderella story: Simian starlet Mya boasts a likable face and a bobbed fringe of hair that suggests a ginger Moe Howard, but she’s at the bottom of the Tasty Fig Tree of Life, eating scraps while her monkey-band’s royalty chews fresh fruit in the top branches. The upper caste includes three red-faced sisters who, in movie narrative terms, are Heathers or Mean Girls or whatever. Tina Fey narrates — and wins a healthy number of laughs by making gentle who, me? comedy-voices over silly reaction shots. This is as close as most of us will ever come to giggling ourselves silly to monkey videos on YouTube with Fey and her family.
The moment-to-moment inventions are great fun, but the larger narrative inventions are less inspired. The movie insists that all it takes for our plucky heroine to climb to the top is to nurse and love her kiddo, that darling little fist-sized ball of limbs and a tail, to lead her band into the city after it’s chased from its rock-pile home by a tougher monkey-band, and then to be the main squeeze of the new alpha macaque determined to take back the home they’ve lost. The doc calls that home Castle Rock, and this narrative seems just as invented as any involving Starks and Lannisters. Monkey Kingdom strains to wring some Horatio Alger lesson from its incidents, to make Mya’s rise to queendom seem like something she deserves more than the other macaques, because of her pluck and goodheartedness rather than, say, that new alpha’s enjoyment of her fragrant rump.
The scenes we see are real, of course: These ingenious monkeys harass a mongoose, sneak seedpods from lily ponds, learn to share jackfruit, dash over rooftops, and face off with that rival clan. But when they ravage a Sri Lankan villager’s kitchen, you have to wonder: Did the cameras just happen to be sitting in there, waiting, on the day a little girl’s having a birthday party?
Same goes for many scenes of the monkeys in a city, nicking fruits and snacks from marketplace vendors who apparently don’t notice the Disneynature documentary filmcrew. These scenes are hilarious, and the monkeys’ incidental behavior is undoubtedly real, but they seem real like The Amazing Race does, rather than real like a documentary. The question is the severity of the deception: Is the producers’ failure to make clear that they’ve helped orchestrate some scenes a lie or merely an omission?
About twenty minutes in, after Fey has given us the banyan-tree version of the who-sits-where-in-the-lunchroom speech, a tiger saunters along — precisely at the point when Robert McKee or whoever would insist that a screenplay needs some conflict. Over the end credits, we see the filmmakers get giddy about that tiger showing up: “We waited seventeen weeks!” they gush. Why, then, do they present that hard-to-bag big-cat footage as if it’s an everyday occurrence?
Monkey Kingdom is delightful, and its swinging and vaulting best any stuntwork you’ll see in this year’s summer blockbusters, and it’s encouraging that Mya is allowed to be a Disney princess despite breastfeeding in public — and never making any attempt to cover up nipples like smooshed pink candy corns. But its bending of wild nature to a workaday storyline will confuse and annoy smart kids — and will do nothing to smarten up the dumb ones, who are already doomed to a life of never being sure when cameras are lying and when they’re not.