The world of the Sri Lankan macaque is a deeply unfair one. The alpha male, his female deputies, and their children reside high above the rest of the tribe, enjoying peaceful repasts from blooming branches, while the low-status masses risk their lives searching for food on the ground amidst predatory lizards and bears. Even discovering a buffet of buds is a risk: If the lord and ladies of the macaque realm find one of the hoi polloi hoarding food for herself, they won’t think twice about punishing her through physical attacks — and the abduction of her baby — to remind her of her place.
There’s a “Hunger Games” element to these gross injustices, which goes a long way in explaining why the Disneynature doc “Monkey Kingdom” is simultaneously so diverting and so familiar. Narrated by a G-rated but still recognizable Tina Fey, the film boasts all the cinematic strengths we’ve come to expect from the animal-focused nonfic label, including sky-high production values, incredibly intimate footage of wildlife, and broad comic archetypes to keep fidgeters of all ages in their seats.
But director Mark Linfield’s film is also distinguished by its fascinating focus on the rigid but not immutable social hierarchy of the macaque world, as well as a smartly structured story of repression, rebellion, and triumph.
A Katniss-like figure emerges in Maya, a macaque of humble status who is wooed by a male outsider. Kumar peels back his lips and flamboyantly chatters his big, yellow teeth to get her attention, which earns him a chiding from Fey: “Come on, Kumar. Play it cool, man.” His showiness soon gets him exiled by the alpha monkey Raja, but not before Maya’s daily struggle to find food is exacerbated by the needs of her new son, Kip.
Fey calls single-mom Maya a “heroine,” and it’s hard to disagree. Much of the running time is devoted to the maternal macaque’s desperate search for food anywhere she can find it: far afield from the protection of the tribe, underwater, even at a children’s birthday party.
Springy, cat-sized, and none-too-shy — their adventurousness gets them labeled a nuisance in much of Sri Lanka — the macaques are a delight to behold. As endearing as they are, they’re also repulsive: ochre-eyed, splotchy-faced, and topped with weirdly neat hair that looks like it was cut rather precisely around a Frisbee on top of their heads. Worm-like nipples protrude from their chests, and the infants look like ugly-baby versions of Gollum from “Lord of the Rings.” Combined with Fey’s slightly sarcastic (and consistently funny) commentary throughout, the film’s refusal to simply rely on animal adorableness makes it feel like a marginally more mature outing from Disneynature.
Eventually, Maya is forced to defend her inequal society from invaders. (To quote “Aladdin”: “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”) There’s no cathartic revolution (you can’t change monkey nature, after all), but Maya manages to live up to her early promise as a badass mama, while Fey gets in a couple of crowd-pleasing digs at the mean girls of the macaque world. Meanwhile, Termite Day — when crunchy, delicious meat flits through the air on translucent wings, satisfying the eyes and the stomach at the same time for all members of the monkey kingdom, regardless of status — remains a dream but for once a year.