Please Note: The stills used here are taken from the DVD portion of Monkey Kingdom.
Being a monkey isn't all swinging through the trees and peeling bananas - Monkey Island does its darndest to prove that the lives of our simian friends are filled with perils and pleasures. Breezily narrated by comedienne Tina Fey, this trip into the deepest recesses of Sri Lanka continues the Disneynature gold standard of family-friendly, somewhat manipulative but hugely enjoyable nature documentaries.
As the eighth Disneynature feature, Monkey Island has the formula down pat - gorgeous photography, soaring music, celebrity narration, cute animals with nicknames, detailed back stories, and lotsa anthropomorphizing. This particular one follows the saga of a doe-eyed, forlorn macaque monkey named Maya. As an adult female with no partner or children, Maya's lowly position in the surrounding monkey social structure ensures that she must stay on the ground constantly, barred from the giant fig tree lorded over by the resident alpha-monkey, Raja. Making matters worse, she's constantly picked-on by Raja's harem of attending females, three red-faced harpies nicknamed The Sisters. Although Maya tries to get accepted - grooming Raja and serving as a play-object for The Sisters' offspring - her servile status is a sure thing. That is, until a roving male named Kumar impregnates her. With baby Kip in tow, Maya becomes more vulnerable to outside predators, yet her position in the kingdom becomes emboldened with a strapping male like Kumar ready to defend the family.
With its focus on cutely-named characters, a rigid social hierarchy, and the adorable playfulness of the animals, Monkey Kingdom becomes awfully reminiscent of the Discovery Channel's 2005-08 series Meerkat Manor. Monkey Kingdom trumps that show, however, with gorgeous photography that gives a better sense of the monkey's place (a 1,000 year-old abandoned city, complete with way-cool rock caves and, of course, that giant tree). Like Meerkat, this doc intimates the constant, deadly perils these monkeys face without getting too scary about it. When monkeys fall prey to a hungry monitor lizard and a war over territory, it's handled tastefully enough for the kids, yet in a realistic manner that doesn't gloss over the situations. If Tina Fey's casual, jokey narration verges into the too-cutesy at times, at least it relates what the monkeys have to go through in a direct, non-condescending manner.
With regards to exposing children to nature, Monkey Kingdom does an excellent job. Adults may find their attention spans wandering, but kids will likely be enthralled by the monkeys' antics. The movie honestly addresses the impact that human development has on Maya and her fellow monkeys, illustrated with segments of the nimble creatures traversing electric wires, roofs and other obstacles, and sneakily taking food from street vendors and nearby homes. It only feels stagey once - during a scene where the monkeys disrupt the scene of a child's birthday party (a deliberately placed Winnie the Pooh cup gives it away).
Monkey Kingdom goes into cute overload too often for my personal nature-documentary-lovin' tastes, yet overall it hits the notes it's supposed to - this is a Disney movie made for kids, after all. Despite its problems, there are several moments throughout Monkey Kingdom that inspire and delight. One such ethereal, beautifully lensed segment occurs during the annual hatching period for winged termites in the forest. As the multitudes of bugs flutter about in the glow of sunset - providing a feast for monkeys, scorpions and other creatures - one comes to appreciate the pockets on earth that are relatively untouched by human beings.
Disney's home video edition of Monkey Kingdom comes in a single, multi-format package containing the film in Blu-ray, DVD and digital streaming formats. An embossed paperboard sleeve holds it all together.
First things first - the image quality on the Monkey Kingdom Blu-ray is a knockout. The digitally generated 1080p, 1.85:1 picture has a bit of over-sharpening at times, yet the vivid colors and lifelike detail is likely to knock the socks off even those who don't pay attention to that stuff. The naturally lit, outdoor settings come through fantastically with subtle, lightened areas that never get blown out, while the darker areas of the image are pleasantly rich. Although recent films tend to get criticized for digitally sweetening the color during post-production, any changes in this film appear to be done to a natural, life-like effect (having never been to a Sri Lankan jungle, I can't be totally sure on that point).
Great as the visual component was, I was actually a little more impressed with this disc's 5.1 DTS-MA Surround mix. Similar to the Birders: The Central Park Effect disc I reviewed in 2013, this film uses the jungle's ambient sound effects to provide atmosphere around the mix's side channels, bridging scenes together and providing loads of atmosphere. With Fey's pristinely recorded narration and a fairly non-bombastic music score in the central channel, this disc uses the Surround mixing capabilities to their full potential. Alternate soundtracks are provided in English 2.0 descriptive audio, Spanish 5.1 and French 5.1. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, French and Spanish.
Included on just the Blu-ray edition, a decent amount of behind-the-scenes features and other bonuses are included:
Hey, hey, it's the monkeys - the eighth Disneynature film, Monkey Island, shows the struggles and joys that an enclave of monkeys go through in the exotic wilds of Sri Lanka. While the cynic in me wants to pick apart this documentary's flaws (obtrusive pop music, Tina Fey's cloying narration, the constant need to ascribe human traits onto animals), it accomplishes the dual aims of being entertaining and educational for curious, nature-loving kids. Disney's Blu-ray edition is a fantastic showcase for the doc's gorgeous visuals and atmospheric sound. Recommended.