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'Monkey Kingdom' is educational, entertaining and very funny
Kip in Maya's arms in Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom. - photo by Josh Terry
MONKEY KINGDOM three stars narrated by Tina Fey; G (nothing offensive); in general release

Last year, Disneynature gave us a startling and intimate look at the Alaskan wilderness in Bears. Now, the nature documentary division of the Magic Kingdom is back with its eighth offering, Monkey Kingdom.

Narrated by Tina Fey, Monkey Kingdom takes audiences to Sri Lanka and follows the exploits of a troop of toque macaque monkeys that lives in the jungle amid striking ancient ruins.

The toque macaques are a small, gangly brand of monkey, noted for a comical mop of hair on the tops of their heads that perks up when they get agitated. The Monkey Kingdom troop lives on a rocky outcrop called Castle Rock, and a strict caste system regulates which gets the best food from a nearby fig tree.

Like Bears, Monkey Kingdom builds its narrative around a mother and child. In this case, its Maya, a monkey so far down in the local pecking order that she has to forage for food among the scraps that have fallen from the troops tree. Raja, the alpha male, eats from the top of the tree, and his three matesa red-faced trio known as The Sisters get all the exclusive advantages.

It adds up to a bleak outlook for Monkey Kingdoms protagonist, but thanks to a bold intrusion from a free-agent monkey stud named Kumar, Maya has a young son named Kip. We see the highs and lows of Monkey Kingdom through the eyes of mother and son.

Monkey Kingdom doesnt limit itself to the species of its title. The documentary features encounters with other locals, including leopards, monitor lizards, a mongoose and an amusing creature called a sloth bear, which behaves just as its name suggests. (If you stick around for the behind-the-scenes footage that plays with the closing credits, youll also catch some footage of a king cobra.)

Some of the film's best moments happen when the monkeys cross into the human world. In one scene, Maya leads a group of monkeys into a nearby house to raid a childs birthday party, and their antics get big laughs from the audience. Later, the monkeys take on a local fruit and vegetable market, and the comic high jinks continue.

But the films most interesting statements happen when the monkeys behave like humans far from civilization. Monkey Kingdoms emphasis on the troops caste system feels like a thinly veiled accusation of similar human practices, and much of the film is built around what happens when a rival group of monkeys attempts to take over ownership of Castle Rock.

It isnt all humor and politics, though. The most fascinating scene in the documentary is equal parts beautiful and gruesome. One day each year, the monkeys home is infested with winged termites, and all enjoy a massive, cringe-worthy feast, regardless of their social status. The footage of this event elegant monkeys leaping and grabbing as the sunlight reflects off a thousand insect wings filling the screen has to be seen to be appreciated.

Its this up-close-and-personal photography style that makes Monkey Kingdom and the other Disneynature films so effective. Its impossible to watch the results without constantly contemplating the process it took to get the footage.

That being said, without any talking characters or the exaggerated goofiness of animation, Monkey Kingdom may struggle to hold the attention of its youngest audience members. Feys narration is clearly aimed at kids, but the documentary style could challenge those with short attention spans.

Monkey Kingdom" is rated G; running time: 81 minutes.