Monkey Kingdom is the sixth film to be released theatrically during the week of Earth Day under Disney’s Disneynature independent film label. The series is the heir to Disney’s famed True-Life Adventures series of fourteen short and feature length nature documentaries produced between 1948 and 1960, a series which garnered eight Academy Awards in those years. The Disneynature series began in 2007. Monkey Kingdom follows a troop of toque macaque monkeys over the course of a year as they forage for food, procreate, and fight to survive in the Sri Lanka’s Polonnauruwa jungle and a nearby city.
Watching a nature documentary like Monkey Kingdom in a theater is an interesting experience. Similar to films made for children and horror films, the different narrative layers at work in the film are more obvious than they are in more subtle films. There are at least three layers worth considering in Monkey Kingdom.
The first layer worth considering is the layer most of us will access most easily. Monkey Kingdom’s story, as narrated by Tina Fey, is a story of economic inequality and class struggle. Monkey Kingdom features a cast of monkeys who live at various levels of macaque society. Raja and the Sisters live at the top of the hierarchy. Maya, her son Kip, and Kip’s father, Kumar, live at the bottom and struggle to climb their way to the top. The events of the story raise and lower the respective monkeys’ social status. Monkey Kingdom is a story of the 1% versus the 99%, and since we almost all see ourselves as part of the 99% desperate to rise, Maya’s story is our story.
The second layer worth considering is the complex method the filmmakers employ to tell this story. Often, filmmaking conventions like editing and sound design are all but invisible. They are meant to be, because the filmmaker’s typical goal is to enthrall us in a story. When we start noticing the technique, the filmmaker is failing.
In Monkey Kingdom, the technique is more obvious than in other films in large part because we know these macaques aren’t acting. They are simply living their lives, and the filmmakers are telling their story. So, when Maya is looking for her missing son, Kip, and the filmmakers cut back and forth between single shots of Maya and Kip, we see distance created by editing. Maya and Kip may have been mere feet apart. We have no way of knowing. The editing separates them. Compound that technique with the sound design which at first relegates Kip’s distressed chirping to shots of Kip (as if Maya cannot hear him), and then allowing the sound of Kip’s chirping to bleed over into shots of Maya (as if suddenly she can hear him even though neither of the macaques have moved), and the method by which this story is being crafted is all the more obvious. Even if (like me) you don’t find the travails of these monkeys all that enthralling, the film still serves as a fun exercise in observing how films tell stories.
The third layer worth considering in Monkey Kingdom is perhaps the most important and the most difficult to see. This layer is difficult to see because it is the underlying method of both the story and the cinematic conventions. Monkey Kingdom anthropomorphizes this troop of toque macaques to the point where they are almost unrecognizable as monkeys. Monkey Kingdom does such a good job telling a story that humans can relate to, the film becomes about humans instead of about this troop of monkeys. Maya isn’t called “Maya” by the other monkeys. The monkey doesn’t name her son “Kip.” The monkey isn’t trying to scale the social ladder and usurp the powerful “sisterhood” at the top. The monkey doesn’t see the interloping male as a means to gain status in the troop. The “sisters” aren’t jealous of her baby. None of the monkeys have “street smarts.” These are all human ideas the film imposes on the macaques in order to tell us a story we can understand.
Cinema excels at engendering empathy. Movies allow us to feel what someone else feels. They provide us a window into the perspectives of “others.” Cinematic tools can also be used to do the opposite – they can be used to force perspective onto a movie’s subject. Whether it is intentional or not, there is a deep antipathy at work when movies force perspective in this way. It is as if the movie is saying, “That which I am featuring is so foreign to me, so ‘other,’ I must make it look and act like me if I’m going to interact with it.” To honor the unique humanity, or in this case, monkey-ness, of another we must honestly appraise the other as they are, not as we wish they were. Only after seeing them for who they are can we love them fully.
Granted, this is difficult when we’re talking human-to-human interaction. Looking cross-species is exponentially more difficult, and Monkey Kingdom’s anthropomorphism is a valiant if misguided attempt to understand macaque society and translate its dynamics for a human audience. What would a better method look like?
Radiolab recently ran a series of stories about people trying to get “inside” animals’ minds. The final segment of their program, “Sharing Is Caring? Or is it Sin?,” focused on two authors’ interactions with geese. Writer Paul Theroux makes the point that the only way he has found to see geese in the fullness of their geese-ness is to take a chair into the midst of the geese who live in his yard and sit for long period of time until the geese forget he’s there. He says that when this happens, he is granted an opportunity to “simply [watch] animals who are content doing their thing.” He continues, “Then you feel a bit like Adam.” (Interestingly, Radiolab follows this confession with the sound of geese overlaid with the sound of a church choir.)
The method Theroux describes is the closest he can get to being incarnated with the geese. He can’t become a goose and interact with them, but he can become invisible to them and at least see them as they are, undisturbed by his presence. His method is very similar to the method used not by the filmmaking team behind Monkey Kingdom but by the researchers who have been living on the edge of macaque society in the Sri Lankan jungle for fifty years, as Monkey Kingdom director Mark Linfield reports in this interview with NPR’s Arun Rath. That kind of work requires extreme patience, psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual endurance, and a self-sacrificial spirit. It’s the kind of work done by the best missionaries, the best scientists, the best pastors, and the best artists alike. It’s the hard work of getting yourself out of the way long enough to see the particular ways you might positively influence a situation. Then it’s doing that particular thing well and with the other always in mind.