Monkey Trouble, by Tyler Smith
When watching a movie, it’s important to keep its intended audience in mind, especially if you’re not enjoying it. It’s entirely possible that the film was never meant for you. This is something I’ve had to remind myself of over the years as I return again and again to the Disneynature documentaries. I’m often frustrated by the way in which Disney forces a simplistic narrative onto a straightforward nature film. I’m exasperated by the cutesy narration and verbalizing of the animals’ thoughts and feelings. In many ways, I’ve come to really hate these movies.
However, just as my frustration is at its peak, I remind myself that these films are not necessarily for me. Oh, sure, I can watch them and marvel at the beautiful photography, and wonder exactly how the filmmakers were able to pull this off. But, in the end, I have to acknowledge that these films are much more about exciting a younger audience than engaging an older one. I believe that it’s important, especially in the digital age, for kids to develop an interest in the natural world. And if it takes a cloying narrative to do that, so be it.
That’s all well and good, but Mark Linfield’s documentary Monkey Kingdom takes things a step beyond all of this. The cramming of this gorgeous footage into a more digestible story is fine, but its when the writers start to impose human values onto the animals that I start to get angry all over again. It’s one thing to project our humanity onto the monkey, but it’s quite another to judge them in the same way we judge each other.
The story of the film- and the tone in which it is told- is about a troop of monkeys and a lone female at the bottom of the hierarchy. Over the course of the film, circumstances will force the troop out of their home and into the wild, where the female and other “lowborn” monkeys will lead the way. As they do so, they quickly ascend the social ladder and wind up at the top.
So far, so good. However, the absolute disdain that the film has for the “highborn” monkeys is, to me, confounding. It’s one thing to impose a human narrative on the monkeys, but it’s another to put a political narrative onto them. The joy that the film takes in the humbling of those in charge seems like something out of an Occupy Wallstreet rally. The musical cues and the snide narration by Tina Fey tells the audience that these monkeys are snobbish and haughty, worthy of our disgust and hatred.
Why are we being told to judge these animals? For a film whose intent is to celebrate nature, it often appears to sit back with a superior air and scoff at it. I realize there’s a story being told, but it’s important to remember that these are just monkeys! They act on instinct. They are not ignoring socially-encouraged mores like generosity and humility. They’re not putting themselves before everybody else. There is no 1% here!
Something that a nature documentary series like Planet Earth can do is help humans to realize that there’s more going on in the world than just our problems. We can stand back in awe at the beauty and majesty of the world. It is a humbling experience. However, in films like Monkey Kingdom, we have the height of human self-centeredness, in which we see a fascinating story of the animal kingdom, and feel like there’s just not enough there. We have to imprint this story with our human values in order to feel better about choices we’ve made and philosophies we hold.
In other words, we’ve taken the wonder of nature and made it all about us.
This doesn’t seem like a good instinct to engender in young children, especially if we’re simply trying to expose them to the natural world. Monkey Kingdom can be forgiven a lot of things because of the audience it’s trying to reach. But, if in its attempt to reach this audience it pushes them more towards human narcissism, whatever forgiveness was there quickly dissipates.