More than monkey business


“Did you know monkeys could swim?” asks Tina Fey in Monkey Kingdom. While she’s asking, a toque macaque (a two foot-long monkey with red-white fur and great hair) breast-strokes under the surface of a pond, yanking out lily pad flowers by her teeth and dragging them ashore to munch later.

Turns out monkeys can swim. And slide down telephone poles. And do the thing from Flashdance where you bring down a cascade of water on your head and shake it off in slow-motion.

All will happen in Monkey Kingdom, the eighth film in nine years from Disneynature, Disney’s wildlife documentary outlet.

If you’ve seen one, you’ve no doubt seen enough to know the gist of Monkey Kingdom. It follows a specific group of animals in a documentary/adventure story.

It’s narrated by a charming guest celebrity (in this case, Fey). It’s extremely well-produced. Just like Bears and African Cats and all the other critters who came before.

But Monkey Kingdom might be the strongest Disneynature venture yet – the movie goes beyond the usual “Hey, cool – monkeys!” appeal of most nature docs (and even previous Disneynature films, which told a story but mostly relied on “Hey, cool – bears/lions/whatever” as the major selling point).

There’s an actual story here; a story compelling enough that you’ll want to follow along, rooting for the heroes to persevere and the villains to get some well-deserved comeuppance. And yes, Monkey Kingdom has villains. Monkey villains.

The star of Monkey Kingdom is Maya, a young macaque single mom working a dead-end job to try to make ends meet. Or, whatever the equivalent is in monkey terms.

Maya and the rest of her macaque troop make their home in an abandoned forest temple in Sri Lanka, where the upper echelon of monkey society sits in the highest treetops and eats the ripest fruits.

Maya’s a monkey outcast, forced to sit on the forest floor and eat everyone’s old scraps. But when a villain emerges – Lex, a snaggle-toothed monkey who somehow has a crew cut, leading a rival troop – Maya emerges as the underdog champion her troop truly needs.

There will be a training montage. There will be the death of a monkey loved one, with the others quietly circling around his body in some kind of monkey funeral rite. Who knew monkey lives had so much drama?

As is the standard for Disneynature, everything looks marvelous and sounds marvelous (is the use of the Monkees theme song a little corny? Yeah, probably).

And as always, Monkey Kingdom doesn’t shy away from the dirtier parts of the natural world – while keeping things kid-appropriate at all times.

That monkey funeral is about as grim as it gets (including non-graphic shots of the slain macaque lying still on the forest floor) – but monkeys die and monkeys mate, as they often do in real life. Entirely off-screen, though (Monkey Kingdom is rated G, after all).

Really, it’s a Disneynature movie. If you’ve seen at least one, you know what you’re getting into (and “what you’re getting into” is a crowd-pleasing family nature documentary).

Besides, this one’s got Tina Fey, who makes an excellent monkey narrator. Especially when it comes to putting Maya’s feelings of monkey motherhood into words.

There’s just one question that Monkey Kingdom leaves unanswered: when Maya’s troupe forages into human territory and gobbles down the snacks from a birthday party, did the Disneynature folks intervene?

Or did just they sneak back into the jungle after a dozen unwashed animals rolled around in some kid’s birthday cake? I’d like to think they at least bought the kid a new cake afterward.
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Folk pop band The Head and The Heart will perform at 7 p.m. at the Classic Amphitheater at Richmond Raceway. The group’s first release for Warner Bros. Records is “Signs of Light” and features the lead single “All We Ever Knew.” General admission is $39.75. For details, visit http://tinyurl.com/TheHeadAndTheHeart. Full text

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