Monkeys! Things I Learned from Watching Disney’s Monkey Kingdom

This past weekend, we brought Sprout to his first movie in a theater. It was in the mid-60s and predicted to rain, but I also wanted to get out of the house. It was just the right day for going to the movies. While there are few movies I would show him at this age, we were in luck. Last week, Disney released the latest in their Earth Day Disney Nature series – Monkey Kingdom. I figured if there was any movie that would hold his attention, it was this one. Besides, we were fully prepared to leave the theater if he got too antsy. As he was enthralled for the first 45 minutes, we all got to pay close attention to that section. Here are a few things I learned while watching:

My kid really likes monkeys.
I already knew this one, but I couldn’t predict exactly how many times he would say the word “monkey!” during the movie. At least 30 or 40, although I wasn’t counting. Thankfully, there were only about 10 other people in the theater, none of them sitting close to us. Chris said there was another kid with running commentary as well, although I didn’t hear them. It helped that the the sound was really loud.

The city the movie is set in is real and looks awesome.
The movie focuses on a group of monkeys in Polonnaruwa, an abandoned ancient city in Sri Lanka. The scenery is spectacular, with monkeys swinging from natural rock formations, giant trees, and intricately carved buildings. The coolest part is that Polonnaruwa is a real place, designated as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site. The movie doesn’t even show some of the most striking statues, intricately carved and full of evocative details in their clothes and headdresses. I’ll probably never get to visit, but damn, the Wikipedia article alone made me want to.

Macaque monkeys provide a great illustration of privilege.
The movie focuses on Maya, a lower-class macaque monkey. Macaques have a very specific, strict and regimented social structure. The top monkeys – the alpha male and his primary females – get the best food, sleeping places, and protection from predators. Because class position is inherited, their kids are extremely privileged as well. They get to climb all over the lower-class adult monkeys, even when they’re trying to sleep. Whether they want to or not, the low-class monkeys are forced to be defacto babysitters for the royalty. The movie’s explanation of the system was a great elementary description of privilege that I think could spark some really interesting conversations with older kids. (Especially if you ignored the rest of the plot. More on that later.)

By Kalyan Varma GFDL 1.2, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Kalyan Varma GFDL 1.2, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Baby macaques are seriously ugly-cute.
They’re super-wrinkly and almost completely bald except a little patch of old-man hair on the tops of their heads. Only other monkeys and people who think naked mole rats are cute could think baby macaques are.

Disney’s dislike of non-conventionally attractive people extends to monkeys as well.
Except for the babies – which obviously get a pass – every monkey with a disfigurement or a striking facial feature was a villain. Props to Chris for pointing this out. He also made the valid point that much of the “showdown” between the two monkey tribes was just the result of clever editing. The scarred monkey that was presented as the head of the warring tribe was probably from the same group as the heroine.

Nature documentaries are a great way to teach media awareness.
I remember being absolutely shocked the first time I realized nature documentaries are often staged. I maintained my naïveté about that particular subject for a pathetically long time – at least until high school. And those were “Planet Earth” type of movies, with straight-forward facts over vibrant, amazing images. “Documentaries” like Monkey Kingdom that have a plot and specific characters require the filmmakers to play even faster and looser with “what really happens in the wild.” One part of the movie claims that a number of traumatic events happen to our protagonist in a single day, when it probably took months to shoot. Similarly, some people have suggested that the main character and her “love interest” are never on screen simultaneously, their romance a result of clever editing. While Sprout isn’t old enough, discussing how nature filmmakers can use selected footage and editing to create or suggest events that never happened is an excellent lead-in to broader discussions into how the media does or doesn’t cover news. The idea that the media can distort the news or leave out major parts is challenging to consider, but nature documentaries offer a fuzzy and gentle introduction.

Disney seriously made a film about monkeys into a princess movie.
A key part of media awareness is being able to read the unsaid or implied messages in a story. Disney’s message in Monkey Kingdom – and I am not exagurrating at all – is that if you are poor, you can wait for your Prince Charming to come and overthrow the king. Seriously. The low-born monkey has a love interest come in from another group, the love interest takes over after the monkey King loses his position during a conflict, and Maya, her baby, and her monkey prince live happily ever after. Tina Fey does a good job narrating and the story is cute, but also pretty inane. Fortunately, the imagery and footage was so engaging that it was easy to forgive the silliness.

If you’re a toddler, movie theater seats are really fun.
The movie was so engaging that Sprout was captivated for a good 45 minutes – about 2/3 of the running time. After that point, he wanted to move around a little. As he clambered off my lap, I let him sit in the seat next to me. Not being a toddler myself, I underestimated both how little he would be in comparison to the giant seat and how much he could move the it up and down with his body weight. Thankfully, this new diversion was both quiet and pretty darn entertaining for him.

Letting a toddler walk up or down stairs in a movie theater in the dark is a terrible idea.
Unfortunately, playing on the movie theater seat didn’t last the entire movie. No, his next task to conquer was crawling up the stairs. Again, I figured it was quiet and relatively harmless. I parked myself on the stairs and planned to give chase if he went too far. Unfortunately, he didn’t get far at all. As he pulled himself up the third step and I glanced at the screen, I heard a wail. He had slipped, crumpled in a toddler-shaped pile. I scooped him up and hustled outside, trying to minimize both his pain and everyone else’s exposure to it. After a few minutes of calming down, we went back into the theater. Then, because I’m a brilliant, forward-thinking mom, I let him try to walk down the stairs. Of course, he fell again. Thankfully, it wasn’t as hard and the movie was pretty much over anyway.

What was the first movie in a theater you brought your kid to or that you remember as a kid? How did it go?

One thought on “Monkeys! Things I Learned from Watching Disney’s Monkey Kingdom

  1. Pingback: Very, Very Big Planes: The Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air and Space Museum | We'll Eat You Up – We Love You So

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