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MONKEY KINGDOM: 4 STARS. “A mix of education and entertainment.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 12.49.48 PM“Monkey Kingdom,” the new film from Disneynature, begins with “(Theme from) The Monkees” on the soundtrack. The actual monkeys in the film—a tribe of toque macaques—however, don’t sing, but they do monkey around.

This time Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, the co-directors of Disneynature’s “Earth” and “Chimpanzee” show us a family of monkeys living in ancient ruins in the jungles of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. It’s a complex society built around the hierarchy of the stone structure and a tree. Those at the top, like alpha male Raja, enjoy blazing sunlight and all the ripe fruit they can eat. Like a feudal lord Raja carefully guards his place and the rank of the other “high-borns” from interlopers.

Under him are “the sisterhood,” red-faced (not embarrassed monkeys, they are literally red-faced) moms and aunties who are the next in charge. “These ladies get what they want,” says narrator Tina Fey. They are brutal and uncompromising. Think “The Walking Dead’s” Carol and you get the idea.

In this world a jackfruit isn’t just food, it’s a political tool used to assert prominence and humiliate underlings.

Born at the bottom of the tree, figuratively and literally, is Maya, a “low-born” toque macaque and single mom of Kip. Like a simian Kitty Foyle all she wants is to make a better life for herself and move up the social ladder. When a warring clan overruns their home Raja and company are forced to leave and relocate in a nearby city. Urban life stands in stark contrast to the rural kingdom they left behind, but it is here Maya thrives and improves her standing in the macaque community.

A mix of education and entertainment, “Monkey Kingdom” is filled with useful information, beautiful imagery and ape anecdotes. Fey’s narration blends learning with light-hearted joshing—like a parent reading a picture book to a child—and images guaranteed to appeal to up younger viewers. Is there anything cuter than a snoring monkey? I’ll answer that for you. No there isn’t, and I’m sure your kids will agree. The voice over occasionally tries a bit too hard—describing Maya’s mate as “fifteen pounds of hunky monkey” is too cute by half—but as a vocal tour guide to the story Fey is an agreeable presence.

“Monkey Kingdom” does feature some mild “circle of life” scenes but focuses most of its kid-friendly 77 minute running time on the familial lifestyle and complicated relationships of these fascinating creatures.


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