Monkey Kingdom

Children help write review

I gave my two daughters and my niece a pen and a pad as we entered the movie theater to see Monkey Kingdom, Disneynature’s latest documentary.

“I need help writing my review,” I said.

 The underdog story of Maya drives the film, and she is perhaps the strongest female protagonist in a Disney film in recent memory.

When we exited the theater, I received back two whole sentences, the most complete being, “This was a really good movie,” from my 9-year-old niece, who also noticed that there were “a few parts of monkeys fighting.”

In retrospect, it was an unfair request. Who wants to complete nonrequired homework on a weekend? And during a movie to boot. Plus, it’s extremely difficult to write in the dark, especially when there is a compelling story about monkeys unfolding on a giant screen in front of you. Truth be told, I didn’t leave with much more than illegible monkey scratches on my pad either. All of us, however, agreed that it was a movie worth seeing.

As has been the custom the last five years on Earth Day weekend, Disneynature releases a documentary chronicling the lives of particular animals, and the macaque monkeys of Sri Lanka earned this year’s honor of being featured. Narrated by Tina Fey, the movie chronicles the everyday life of a family of about 50 monkeys who live among ancient ruins in a place dubbed by the filmmakers as Castle Rock.

What plays out in this little community is a microcosm of human life. There are social classes. Raja, the king of the group, eats the ripest figs at the top of the tree and is surrounded by a devoted trio of females, known in the movie as the Sisterhood. At the bottom sits Maya, who consumes the dregs of the fruit tree and tries to scrape by, with little hope of moving up.

My daughters were happy to give their thoughts after the movie, and Maya was the character they gravitated to the most. The underdog story of Maya drives the film, and she is perhaps the strongest female protagonist in a Disney film in recent memory, much more resourceful than Else and Anna from Frozen, and much more responsible than Merida from Brave.

“I liked Maya because she had to figure out ways to survive,” said Ella, my 11-year-old.

“They [the filmmakers] did things to make the story more interesting,” said Marin, 8. “Maya did things to try to get to the top.”

A turning point in the movie is when Kumar, an outsider, tries to integrate into the Castle Rock family and woos Maya. The wooing works, but when Kumar challenges Raja and loses, he goes into exile. Maya later gives birth to their son, Kip.

“Kip was cute,” Marin said. “It was fun to see him swim and it was also fun to see him ride on Maya’s belly.” Kip, nestled close to Maya’s stomach, would hold onto Maya’s neck while she walked on all fours. Marin tried this technique out on me after the movie and has requested to ride this way on me in the days since watching the movie. I have new found respect for Maya too because I felt like an old man in pain with an 8-year-old around my neck.

Both of my kids were impressed with Maya’s resourcefulness as a single mom. When there wasn’t enough food for all tribe members, Maya took others in the lower class to look for other food sources, including lily ponds and human food. On two separate occasions, Maya led a mission into town, including a memorable scene where the monkeys crash a birthday party, toss food around the kitchen, and devour the cake.

“It was funny when they went to town because they were eating all of the human food,” Ella said.

“It was funny when they attacked the birthday party,” Marin said. “But I feel really bad for that kid [who was celebrating a birthday].”

Neither of my kids found major flaws with the movie. I have had problems with the cheeky narration in the past with the Disneynature films, most notably Chimpanzee and last year’s Bears. Fey, however, has a thoughtful and kind delivery that suits the movie well. There was, of course, the over-humanization of animals, but that isn’t solely a Disney flaw (even the acclaimed March of the Penguins was guilty of that). The filmmakers were smart to latch onto Maya’s underdog story.

While the kids couldn’t think of anything they would have changed, Ella did wonder what the movie would have been like if monkey life had taken a different turn.

“It would have been interesting if the head monkey [Raja] had died,” Ella said.

“Yeah, but they can’t really control if a monkey dies,” countered Marin.

“I know, but it would have been interesting,” Ella said. “Then the other ones would have learned what to do without him.”

“Well, the head monkey kind of lowered,” Marin said.

Without giving too much away, a rival monkey group attacks Castle Rock and the results set up an opportunity for the social order to be changed. This action was part of the reason Ella though Monkey Kingdom was a good movie.

“It had adventure and keeps you on your toes,” she said.

“You mean the edge of your seat?” asked my wife, Sonya.

“Yeah, that.”


Rated G and includes some intense scenes of monkeys fighting for territory. The kids agreed that Monkey Kingdom deserves 3.5 out of 4 stars.