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Hakuna Macaque

It doesn't matter what species of animal it is or where it lives, Disneynature will locate it, assign its members cute human names, set up a documentary crew to carefully spy on them, and organize a narrative based on the footage. As temporary unskilled labor contracting with Disneynature, the animals' job description is to behave in any manner they please, while keeping in mind that only specifically approved activities will be considered camera-ready.

Praise Monkey Kingdom's camera-lugging crew, then, for another job well done capturing those signature moments with the latest batch of wild employees. After the somewhat harrowing African Cats, and the weirdly corny Bears, Monkey Kingdom finally balances the formula. There's less killing and less cuteness all around. In fact, save for a silly introduction featuring the "Theme from The Monkees," these Sri Lankan macaque monkeys barely need the low-key anthropomorphic treatment they get here. That's because they're already fairly adept at behaving like status-obsessed, self-centered human beings.

This particular collection of monkeys lives among ancient ruins, occasionally entering the nearby town to go on food raids for novelties like cookies and cake. (The excursion we see involves a children's birthday party where the kids happen to be drinking from Disney Winnie The Pooh cups, just to make sure corporate branding is never allowed to rest).

The monkeys also run and jump, hug and kiss, annoy an adjacent mongoose that hates them, and play with a local dog that loves them. To prove that it's not all fun and games, they also engage in territory battle with a rival monkey crew, and spend at least part of their time trying not to die when a nearby monitor lizard shows up for dinner.

Because the aesthetic ambition and story model for this type of thing was set in stone a long time ago -- think reasonably serene visit to the zoo -- the film's main agenda is the depiction of sweetness and love between a mother monkey and her child. This mom and baby team live within a fairly strict caste-based community, so their cuddliness is never fully allowed to eclipse the reality that these creatures are driven not by ethical considerations, but by an accumulation of evolutionary traits. Their behavior is neither good nor bad, it just is.

Though only briefly glimpsed in this otherwise safe-for-little-ones adventure, it becomes clear that the monkeys will happily eat other species and sometimes kill their own when the fight is on. They also physically bully monkeys within their own circle if they don't like them, and are more than willing to engage in casual cruelty for the sake of keeping the pecking order in place and preserving their habitat. That this sort of thing is downplayed as much as possible -- Tina Fey's warm narration helps -- is a function of keeping children in seats. Better that than a theater full of little kids fleeing in tears when monkey-on-monkey violence is imminent.

If the purpose of these films is to get young people to consider worlds outside their own, to respect the other species that share the planet, it succeeds, usually gently, and that's good. And if fake-humanizing some simians is what's required to make that happen, then that's just life in the movie jungle. If harsher children's filmmaking is what you're after, there's always Bambi.


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