Monkey Kingdom


Monkey see, monkey do.

Monkey see, monkey do.

(2015) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Tina Fey (narrator). Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill

What could be more fun than a barrel full of monkeys? Try an ancient Sri Lankan temple full of monkeys.

The latest nature documentary from Disney’s nature documentary arm once again enraptures us with incredible images of animals in their natural habitats just being themselves. In this case, we’re following a tribe of Macaque monkeys in an abandoned ancient temple that has largely been reclaimed by the jungle. We get to see monkey culture as very much a mirror of our own, with those at the top getting the best of everything and those at the bottom struggling to survive.

The heroine here is Maya, one of the bottom dwellers. She exists on whatever scraps of food she can find on the floor of the jungle. The tops of the fruit-laden fig trees are reserved for Raja, the alpha male and the Sisters, a trio of red-faced dowagers who serve as Raja’s support group. In monkey society, the sisters are essentially born into privilege whereas Raja earns his position by fighting his way to the top.

The social hierarchy is very strict and attempts to rise above one’s place is met with severe punishment. Maya’s outlook changes when she meets Kumar, a male who has been driven from his own tribe by their alpha male looking for a new tribe to join. Kumar is taken by Harold…I mean, Maya…and her cute-as-a-bug bowl haircut that resembles Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber. Eventually Maya ends up pregnant while Raja drives off Kumar when Kumar is a little too flippant with his status. Typical man, running away when responsibility calls, right?

Now Maya is a single mum and she’s not just trying to survive on her own but must eat enough so that her milk flows for her baby. To get the nutrition she needs she has to take a few chances and brave monitor lizards, human settlements and the wrath of the sisters in order to keep her child fed. The whole tribe however faces incredible adversity when another tribe invades their home and pushes them out. With many of the males injured and the tribe displaced, it is surprisingly Maya who leads the tribe to steal food from the humans and lick their wounds until they are sufficiently recovered to make an attempt to take back their home.

Like most DisneyNature films, the animals are anthropomorphized so that kids can identify with them, which to Disney executives is crucial I suppose although I think the executives would be surprised by how kids would identify with the animals without having to resort to making them characters. That’s just me talking though.

What DisneyNature does right in a big way is the footage itself. Did you know monkeys can swim underwater? I didn’t until now, and watching them hunt for lily pad seed pods under water is literally breathtaking. We get vistas of the Sri Lankan jungle, beautiful sunsets, winged termites rising by the thousands becoming a flying feast for the monkeys and so much more. The footage is absolutely transfixing.

The monkey battles are handled tastefully, including the death of one of the monkeys. However, the vision of angry monkeys screeching and galloping into battle like golden brown cruise missiles might upset children of a sensitive nature. You know your child well enough to know whether or not they can handle it. In general I think most children can; as I said, it’s handled with sensitivity but be aware in any case.

Despite my complaint about turning the animals into Disney characters, I still look forward to the DisneyNature films every year. Not only are they incredible to watch but Disney makes a real effort to call attention to issues within the biodiversity of this wondrous planet of ours. They also contribute financially to organizations who help preserve habitats and save entire species, so one has to give respect for that, although I’d love to see them do a film on black rhinos who are nearly extinct. Maybe in 2017. In any case, if naturalist Jane Goodall puts her stamp of approval on a film about monkeys – and she has on this one – you really can’t argue with that.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible footage of monkeys and their environs. Teaches us a bit about our own culture.
REASONS TO STAY: The usual bugaboo about humanizing animals. May be a bit too violent for sensitive children.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming was done in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chimpanzee
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: True Story

African Cats


African Cats

These African Cats are just a bunch of cheetahs.

(2011) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey

Nature can be a harsh mother, one whose life lessons are sometimes cruel and at other times beautiful. The world that the predator cats of Africa exist in is one that is exacting, but one in which the devotion of a mother is as fierce and beautiful as it is in the civilized world.

Layla is an aging lioness, a fierce hunter and mother to Mara, a female cub. She lives on the South bank of a river as part of the River Pride, presided over by its only male, Fang. Like Layla, Fang is a battle-scarred warrior who is beginning to show the signs of his age.

Sita is a fearless cheetah, one who is bringing up five cubs alone, as is the nature of cheetahs. They live on the Northern bank of the river. She is trying to teach her children the necessities of survival, something that is not always easy with children, especially when she has to contend with hyenas, a sometimes scarce food supply and also the lions of the region.

Kali is the father of three strapping young male lions. He rules the Northern bank of the river and now seeks to expand his territory south. He must bide his time during the rainy season as the river is crocodile-infested, but as the summer arrives and the waters recede, he moves south to take on Fang. At stake are the lives of the cubs, all of whom will be killed should Kali take over; he will then father new cubs with the lionesses. The battle for survival has begun.

As with the annual Earth Day DisneyNature documentaries, the animals are heavily anthropomorphized, the most of any of these documentaries yet. Jackson, in his spirited narration tells us what the cat moms are thinking, feeling and planning, giving them human responses to situations that might not mirror what a big cat is thinking, feeling or planning. Some of these emotions and thoughts that are ascribed to the felines can be extrapolated from their actions but others are most certainly all invention. I find that bothersome somehow, as if we’re being lied to – which is probably over-sensitivity on my part but still I can’t help feeling a little bit uncomfortable with it.

Certainly their maternal instincts are highly honed and when cubs are missing, they become obviously distraught; when the cubs are threatened, they fight like berserkers, claws and teeth savaging their opponents.

Like all of the DisneyNature documentaries, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. Aerial shots of the vast savannah, the river winding through it like a muddy ribbon, thousands of wildebeests migrating through the territory like ants. The close-up shots of the lions and cheetahs going about their business are nothing short of amazing – watching Sita at full speed, her muscles straining for every bit of speed is something any viewer is going to remember for a very long time. It is a kind of savage beauty that serves to further amaze us at the diversity of life on this big blue marble.

However, the harshness of life on the plains makes for a fairly depressing movie. Lions and cubs are horribly injured and killed; they shiver in the rain and bake in the sun. Some become little more than skin and bones as they slowly starve to death.

The temptation to compare this to National Geographic’s documentary The Last Lions is hard to resist. Both movies focus on lionesses struggling to protect their cubs and both feature amazing footage of lions (and in the case of African Cats, cheetahs as well) in the savannah. However, the Nat-Geo film seems to be more concerned with calling attention to the dwindling numbers of wild lions in Africa while African Cats seems more disposed towards telling a kid-friendly story, so you have to give a nod to the other film on that score.

However, I found the Kenya-filmed footage in African Cats more compelling and more spectacular thanks to Fothergill’s well-honed sense of scope. He has also filmed the documentaries Deep Blue and Earth and may very well be the best nature documentarian alive. It kind of winds up as a push.

Disney’s heart is in the right place, using Earth Day to release films about our natural environment and tell stories that are played out in it every day. I don’t really love their need to turn these beautiful creatures into characters as if they should be talking and singing in one of their animated features; the narration should be kept to a minimum in my humble opinion because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures like these are worth infinitely more, and those in charge of these wonderful documentaries would do well to remember that.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography of the majestic African plains and its inhabitants.

REASONS TO STAY: The storyline was too anthropomorphized and depressing.

FAMILY VALUES: There really isn’t anything that would cause a parent to give pause in allowing their children to see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An original song by “American Idol” Season Six winner Jordin Sparks, “The World I Knew” is played over the closing credits, as the various animals that appear in the movie are identified in a humorous way.

HOME OR THEATER: The big African vistas should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mercy (2009)

Charlotte’s Web (2006)


Charlotte's Web

Some loves were just never meant to be.

(2006) Family (Paramount) Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), John Cleese (voice), Oprah Winfrey (voice), Cedric the Entertainer (voice), Robert Redford (voice), Kathy Bates (voice), Reba McEntire (voice), Dominic Scott Kay (voice), Kevin Anderson, Sam Shepard, Gary Basaraba.  Directed by Gary Winick

The truth of the matter is that as much as I was looking forward to seeing this star-studded live action version of the E.B. White children’s novel, Da Queen had even more anticipation than I. There was, therefore, no question that we would be seeing it as soon as it was possible to see it in the theater, and eventually buying the DVD for it as well. Still, the cynic in me wondered; was it possible that the filmmakers could take a beloved novel and completely mess it up?

The plot is simple enough. Fern Arable (Fanning) saves a runt pig from being put down by her farmer dad (Anderson) and raises the pig, whom she calls Wilbur, herself. The two are inseparable, the pig even joining Fern at school. Eventually, the pig grows as baby pigs will, and Fern’s parents put their collective feet down. They send the pig across the road to Uncle Homer’s farm. Kind-hearted Homer Zuckerman (Basaraba) installs the pig in a large, comfortable barn and there Wilbur (Kay) meets the animals of the farm.

There’s unctuous Samuel the Sheep (Cleese), prissy Gussy the Goose (Winfrey), down-to-earth Golly the Goose (Cedric), wry Bitsy the Cow (Bates), neurotic Ike the Horse (Redford) and devious Templeton the Rat (Buscemi). However, Wilbur’s best friend of all is Charlotte A. Cavatica (Roberts), spider.

However, all is not idyllic in the barn. The other animals are aware of what happens to spring pigs on Zuckerman’s farm. They become summer bacon. Alarmed, Wilbur turns to his friends for help, and he finds it in the most unlikely of places – in the miraculous webs of Charlotte.

Most of my generation grew up reading the book and seeing the animated version of it, voiced by Debbie Reynolds (Charlotte), Henry Gibson (Wilbur) and Paul Lynde (Templeton). Quite frankly, it was one of my favorite books and I read it and re-read it regularly, and I’m sure there are a lot of people – a whole lot – that could say the same. I think I speak for the majority of us when I say that most of us who love the book would not take too kindly to having it messed with unnecessarily.

Thankfully, director Winick doesn’t. In fact, if recollection serves me correctly (and Da Queen bears this one out), I think this new version is if anything even more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Winick also takes the movie out of the depression era that the book was set in and makes it a bit more timeless, setting it somewhere in the late 20th century, but cleverly doesn’t give too many clues as to when the story is taking place. Rather, he puts the action in a rural setting that is nearly archetypal, so perfect as to be almost too good to be true, and as a result we feel comfortable in this world.

The problems I have with the movie are three-fold. The first is that some of the voice actors – not all, just some – come off rather flat. My favorite moments from the movie tended to come during exclusive live action sequences, as when Fern confronts her father about Wilbur’s fate, or Henry Fussy’s (Julian O’Donnell) awkward courting of Fern. Considering how much this movie and the story relies on the animals, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Second is Charlotte herself. She’s CG, and quite frankly, they do a little too good a job with her. Strangely, they give her almost human eyes rather than the multi-faceted insect eyes that spiders actually have. Rather than humanizing her, it makes Charlotte seem kind of creepy if you ask me. There were times during the movie that I half-expected Charlotte to pounce on some poor unsuspecting critter and eat it alive. Sorry, spiders aren’t cute and cuddly creatures and quite frankly, they should have kept away from close-ups of Charlotte. I’m sure some of the younger kids might have been freaked out a little bit.

The most glaring problem I had with the movie, however, is Wilbur. Child actor Kay doesn’t have the emotional depth to really make Wilbur live, as Henry Gibson did thirty years ago. I know that Wilbur is supposed to be a child, but quite frankly he’s also supposed to be “some pig,” among other things and Kay never makes Wilbur seem anything more than whiny and out-of-sorts.

Still, the good outweighs the bad in the movie. The live actors do a tremendous job and make up for some of the surprising star flops. Shepard’s narration is spot-on; he’s the perfect guy for the job. Winick also captures the mood and the charm of the novel nicely, which is really what you’re looking for most. The animated version stands up even today as a timeless classic; I don’t know necessarily if this version will get the same sort of distinction, but something tells me it will not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and nearly perfect family fare at the right time of the year. Take a break from the big-budget CG animated features and check this out with your kids. It will give you, at the very least, a chance to revisit something beloved from your own childhood.

WHY RENT THIS: The live action version is more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Fanning is terrific in her role as Fern.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The child actor voicing Wilbur isn’t up to the task, sadly – but then many of the voice actors seem curiously flat. CG verion of Charlotte is creepy enough to freak out the smaller tykes.

FAMILY VALUES: Pretty much suitable for the entire family, although younger children might have problems with the realistic CG version of Charlotte.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The two crows, Elwyn and Brooks, are a tribute to the name of the original book’s author E.B. White, whose initials stood for Elwyn Brooks.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are a pair of music videos, as well as a featurette that focuses on what happened to the more than 40 piglets that played Wilbur after shooting wrapped.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $144.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: African Cats