There is so much luscious photography here, a real gluttony of beautiful images that intimately capture a tribe of macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka that I’d like to look the other way, I really would. But Disney Nature isn’t just making nature documentaries. It’s telling stories. Feel good stories. And if the monkeys don’t provide enough drama, or a convenient narrative arc, then one will be provided for them.
The monkeys live in an abandoned ancient city reclaimed by the jungles of Sri Lanka. It’s a striking if haunting place to film monkeys being their monkey selves. The movie focuses on one in particular – Maya, a “low-born” lady monkey with a bowl cut a la Jim Carrey in Dumb And Dumber. Poor Maya gets the last and worst of everything. Even though it’s Tina Fey doing the narrating, you can almost hear Rodney Dangerfield going into his “I get no respect, no respect at all” routine.
Then the soap opera unfolds. Maya gets a boyfriend, but then he gets exiled by the possessive head of household, who normally doesn’t give her the time of day but instead hangs out with the three ugly step sisters who taunt our poor Maya and don’t let her join in any reindeer games. So of course when the boyfriend is run off we find out Maya’s pregnant and she has to be a single Mom, scavenging children’s birthday parties to put frosting and cheesies on the table. And then an enemy tribe shows up to do battle because they want to live on Castle Rock and so far Maya’s tribe only shares reluctantly with an antisocial mongoose. It feels a little like an episode of The Walking Dead – two bands fighting for survival, wanting the best and safest territory for themselves. Maya’s tribe loses, and must leave. Her band of macaques ends up going into the city where they literally monkey around – stealing food from carts, shop lifting from stalls, gorging on people’s dinners while their backs are turned. AND THEIR BACKS ARE ALWAYS TURNED!
There’s a lot to commend and recommend, but let’s face it: Disney is staging its documentaries. These stories don’t just happen in the wild. If you watch, say, Planet Earth, David Attenborough will narrate what is happening so that you can fully appreciate what you see. Tina Fey, wonderful as she is, and I did love the jokey, conversational tone of her narration, is often telling us what the monkeys are thinking. And just how does Tina Fey know what the monkeys are thinking? Did the monkeys provide a script? Is Disney just filming an elaborate play put on by very clever monkeys? Since when does a nature documentary have plot?
I should have known. I should have known that a film studio who banks on sympathetic, singing lions, and little birds who braid hair, and apes who adopt humans, and sharks who won’t eat fish, and dogs who plan elaborate, romantic dates, well, they’re probably not going to be able to shake that tendency in a hurry, are they? So do they give in to their singing-animal desires and use The Monkees as a soundtrack? Sure they do. And throw in Salt N Pepa’s Whatta Man for good measure. I know it sounds like I’m knocking it and I guess I kind of am. I’m a bit of a purist. But the truth is, this is eminently watchable, and friendly, and does a good job of bridging the gap between cartoon and nature show. It will engage children, and it’s not a bad place to start for a young, curious mind – hopefully curious enough to look beyond the silliness and think about what life in the jungle really means.