DisneyNature Doesn’t Monkey Around With Formula
DIRECTED BY MARK LINFIELD, ALASTAIR FOTHERGILL/2015
“Here we come… Walking down the street…”
Yes, this film actually opens with the old Monkees TV show theme. It plays over a satifying opening montage of monkeys in the jungle doing stupid things and getting laughs. It’s lazy, but it works.
At supper just before the screening of the latest DisneyNature documentary Monkey Kingdom, I read aloud the description of the film to my children who would be accompanying me to the theater. Despite the promise of amazing nature photography amid abandoned ruins of the Sri Lanka jungle and the dramatic tale of a monkey momma called Maya who toils in Cinderella-like misery at the bottom of her social order, the aspect that we talked most about was who narrator, Tina Fey, is.
It’s true that the once semi-edgy Fey is the obligarory celebrity narrator of Monkey Kingdom, an entertaining if mildly breezy 81 minute side salad of a film. I explained that Fey, the star and creator of TV’s 30 Rock, has the impressive distinction of being the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live, and is one of the funniest women in the world. The kids seemed genuinely impressed, even as they didn’t know what 30 Rock or Saturday Night Live are. I was then asked if her narration would be funny in this film. I told him I didn’t know why Disney would hire Tina Fey, and then not let her be funny.
She does get to be funny, maybe twice. Which, truth be told, I silently anticipated. Having grown up on reruns of Disney’s “True-Life Adventure” series of similar nature films made fifty-plus years earlier, I suppose I knew all too well what to expect in terms of formula. Back then, it was grainy footage of jungle creatures rendered cute. Today, there’s a noticable uping of production quality. But the template remains unchanged.
Founded in 2008, the DisneyNature brand is a modern reworking of Walt’s own “True-Life Adventure” series, which similtaniously documented and anthropomorphized wild animals. We’d either see “True-Life Adventures” in school, or during Sunday night TV’s “Wonderful World of Disney” – always a disappointment when one was hoping for animation.
Somehow, despite knowing that these filmmakers trudged with their heavy equipemt through marshes in Darkest Darkest Nowhere to get this impressive footage, DisneyNature continues the “Adventures” tradition in more ways than one: They will never be anything other than third-string Disney content.
Although the DisneyNature films are feature length, they nonetheless play as decompressed TV filler, or something a school teacher might put on near the end of a tiring day. Not even the current queen of mainsteam comedy, Tina Fey, can nudge this one into the memorable zone.
This is unfortunate, considing that the photography is indeed beautiful (directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill have a proud history in this field, their filmographies boasting numerous acclaimed BBC nature docs, and other Disney efforts as well) and the story, however finagled it might actually be in editing, is engaging enough. Maya the monkey and her newborn son Kip are mistreated by the tribal hierarchy. Things are downright rotten for them – never the best branch to sit on, never the best mushrooms to eat. Then, thanks to their streetsmarts, the tables turn.
Yet, at the end of the cinematic safari, we come away with precious little, a piffle of an imposed narrative to subtly sell us on its as valid movie entertainment, yet too conventionally educational to ever unroot from that particularly dull mire.
The fact that my own fascination with Tina Fey as a comedy entertainer outweighed the promise of hard-gathered, well-crafted footage of the spectacle of God’s green creation is all too telling in just how effective a childhood of being spoonfed content similar to this was in instilling a sense of awe when it comes to the wonder of nature.
A big part of the DisneyNature initiative, we are reminded of at length prior to the film, is Disney giving back to global causes. They claim that fifteen percent of their haul from all opening weekend ticket sales will go to various save-the-earth charities. All that is terrific, but it still doesn’t change the fact that the most clever aspect of Monkey Kingdom – an otherwise watchable little film – is the way the glacier in the opening DisneyNature logo looks like the faimilar Cinderella castle logo when it’s in siloette. My kids did notice that.
The kids ended up liking but not loving Monkey Kingdom. They have no desire to watch it again, and aren’t clamouring for more DisneyNature movies to devour. But on the other hand, they certainly wouldn’t turn down viewing them in lieu of other school lessons. That’s about the servicable extent of the appeal of Monkey Kingdom.