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Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Review

Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom (2015) movie poster Monkey Kingdom

Theatrical Release Date: April 17, 2015 / Running Time: 81 Minutes / Rating: G

Writer/Director: Mark Linfield / Co-Director: Alastair Fothergill / Producers: Mark Linfield, Alastair Fothergill

Narrator: Tina Fey / Tagline: Adventure is in full swing.

Buy Monkey Kingdom from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Instant Video

Another year. Another Disneynature film. Another opportunity to discuss how this line of nature documentaries doesn't fit the blockbuster-driven philosophy that Bob Iger's Disney has ridden to astronomical success.

Along with inspirational true sports dramas, Disneynature's releases are the only thing keeping the Mouse from being all tentpoles all the time. Who cares if that approach is good for cinema when Disney stock is selling at over $100 a share and has nearly quadrupled since Iger assumed CEO duties from Michael Eisner back in 2005?

Other studios have tried to imitate what Disney has been doing to mixed results. Paramount has mostly eliminated the small and mid-sized movie, but has discovered the escalated pain resulting from a single big-budget miss (as well as the soothing nature of increasingly potent foreign returns). Universal, meanwhile, has run away with 2015 and their record-shattering success on reboots, sequels, brands, and CG-animated comedies looks a lot like what Disney has been experiencing.

I could talk at much greater length about the swift, sweeping change that Disney's gameplan has brought to the industry. But this is a review of Monkey Kingdom, a film you very well may not have heard much about in between the robust showings of March's live-action Cinderella and May's inevitable Avengers sequel. Kingdom is the sixth theatrical release in the line that began with 2009's Earth. With the exception of 2013, every April has sent a new Disneynature documentary to standard theaters just before Earth Day.

While some of the series' past films have surveyed the planet and taken stock of different species, Kingdom settles in on the wilds of Sri Lanka, specifically the one area a society of macaque monkeys call home. Disneynature movies have always been G-rated and fairly family-friendly, but this one seems to be taking playfulness to new heights from the start, with the theme from "The Monkees" playing before even the film's title appears.

Maya the macaque tries to keep her son Kip warm during monsoon season in Disneynature's "Monkey Kingdom."

Tina Fey narrates, but she doesn't inject an excess of comedy into those duties. Instead, she is the one enlisted to personify and anthropomorphize these subjects. She alerts us to the hierarchy of this society, which is centered around a cave structure dubbed, like Rob Reiner's production company, Castle Rock. The hierarchy sees pampered alpha male Raja sitting atop a large fig tree answering to no one. Other high branches are occupied by "The Sisterhood", a trio of red-faced females who get first crack at the tree's best fruit. Our heroine is Maya, an 8-year-old who is all the way down at the bottom of the tree.

This being courtship season, Maya is pursued by Kumar, a newcomer whose arrival is announced by a cover of Salt-n-Pepa's "Whatta Man." Kumar is eventually scared off by the troop, but not before giving Maya a little something to remember him by: a baby the film names Kip. Adorable in an old man kind of way, Kip gives the movie visual and emotional appeal. Feeding him on a regular basis is a challenge for Maya, one that monsoon season doesn't at all lighten.

Kip is stolen briefly but returns to his mother safely. The rest of the movie presents episodes from the lives of these monkeys. There are glimpses of other species: a mongoose who hides within Castle Rock who does not share the monkeys' interest in playing, a mother bear determined to protect her two cubs from an outside suitor, and a 7-foot-long monitor lizard who brings death to the community. The movie is more invested in monkeys' class system than the circle of life. Still, it does give us a front row seat to the curious annual termite feast day (described as "every holiday meal rolled into one").

Just another day in the wilds of Sri Lanka as monkeys discover pink birthday cake.

This one stretches the limits of documentary classification, with its narrative figuring more prominently than any before. Serving that narrative requires a lot of character development and some apparent editorial forges. Scenes in which the monkeys burgle a house of food and raid a marketplace feel entirely staged and coordinated. It's not like the monkeys were trained to perform these scenes like Crystal,
the Capuchin from George of the Jungle and the Night at the Museum franchise. But there's definitely an element of "we need some shenanigans to keep the little ones entertained." Documentary purists will be less than amused. And the design definitely pushes Disneynature closer than ever before to fictional films like Homeward Bound, which might just be the point.

For the most part, Disneynature's docs have been extremely consistent. They always get a famous actor with a connection to the studio to narrate (past selections have included Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, and Tim Allen). They are always pretty well-received by critics and moviegoers, neither of whom lavishes them with March of the Penguins-type admiration. And they are entirely insignificant to Disney's bottom line. Whether released to just 1,200 theaters (like Oceans and African Cats) or a little over 2,000 theaters (Kingdom, handily the line's widest opening to date), the movies have all grossed between $15 and $35 million domestically.

To put that narrow range into perspective, each has earned more than George Lucas' animated January flop Strange Magic but less than even the most modest of Disney's sports dramas, like this year's McFarland, USA and last year's Million Dollar Arm. Unlike the sports films, Disneynature documentaries aren't always released by Disney in foreign territories, making it difficult to calculate the value of, say, Earth's strong international reception compared to Bears' virtual non-existence in and Kingdom's complete absence from theaters outside North America. Despite its raised theater count, Kingdom was the second-weakest performer to date domestically and ranks dead last worldwide.

All these facts and figures must be nearly meaningless to Bob Iger and everyone at Disney working under him. With annual revenue of nearly $50 billion, the company cannot be terribly invested or concerned in the middling takes of these documentaries. Disneynature has always possessed more value as public relations than as commerce. The line was proudly announced by Roy E. Disney shortly before his 2009 death, an agreeable expansion to a tradition of nature films that extended back to his youth as a wildlife cameraman and his Uncle Walt's heyday as entertainment royalty. And, as they will gladly tell you, the company has used portions of proceeds to donate to conservational and environmental causes. All things considered, who among us would prefer the company to reallocate the budgets of these movies to something far less noble, like resurrecting the direct-to-video Buddies movies?

Like its recent predecessors, Monkey Kingdom hit home video this week exclusively in a combo pack, this one consisting of a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a code for Digital HD.

Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
DVD Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: September 15, 2015
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed, Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Disneynature films never offer picture and sound any less than superb. Monkey Kingdom extends that tradition, with the Blu-ray's vibrant 1.85:1 picture and potent, Foley-heavy 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack both delighting fully from start to finish.

"Tales from the Kingdom" turns a second camera on the men who filmed "Monkey Kingdom." Seasoned primatologists Wolfgang Dittus and Jane Goodall observe a little monkey on the Sri Lankan set of "Monkey Kingdom."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Monkey Kingdom is accompanied by five HD extras on Blu-ray.

First up, "Tales from the Kingdom" (12:11) has cameramen sharing their experiences from making the film. Footage shows them at work, narrating what they've been catching or hoping to catch on film. We discover what went into shooting the bears, the leopards, and the big termite day.

"On the Set of Monkey Kingdom with Jane Goodall and Wolfgang Dittus" (5:49) lets these animal authorities talk about their decades of studying chimpanzees and Sri Lanka's macaques, respectively. Writer-director Mark Linfield also voices excitement at having Goodall and Dittus give their support and blessings.

Conservation International's Dr. M. Sanjayan is so grateful for Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom." Monkey Kingdom's main menu divides the screen in up to three rectangles for triple the monkey cuteness.

"Disneynature Monkey Kingdom: A Conversation Story" (7:54) allows Conservation International's Disneynature ambassador Dr. M. Sanjayan to gratefully express what the film means
for three Asian countries and the animal species that call them home.

A music video for the film's closing song, "It's Our World" by Jacquie Lee (3:15), follows. It provides a mix of film clips and behind the scenes ones, with no appearance made by the artist, a teenaged runner-up on "The Voice."

Finally, "A Special Thank You from Disneynature" (2:14) is another dose of self-serving. It reflects on the various appropriate causes Disney has donated a portion of opening week ticket sales and home video purchases. It'd be easier to appreciate if it didn't also tackily play automatically before the film.

Of these extras, the DVD only gets "A Special Thank You", which is bound to annoy even more as the patronizing lone bonus feature.

The discs open with promos for Disney Movies Anywhere, Disneynature's next film Born in China, and Aladdin: Diamond Edition. The menus' Sneak Peeks listing cues up Disney Movie Rewards' outdated promo before repeating the spots for Born in China and Aladdin.

The menu cycles through scored clips in three different rectangles, two of which change size. The Blu-ray doesn't resume playback, but does remember where you left off in the film if you couldn't make it to the end in one sitting.

Inserts advertising Disney Movie Club and Disney Educational Products join a booklet with directions and a unique code for Disney Movies Anywhere, the studio's branded alternative to others' digital copies and UltraViolet. The plainly labeled blue Blu-ray and white DVD are held in a side-snapped blue keepcase within an embossed, holographic slipcover.

Maya and Kip get to ch-ch-ch-ch-chow down on the one morning of the year where there are termites everywhere for the taking!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Monkey Kingdom maintains Disneynature's standard of good, but not quite great nature documentaries. Per tradition, it delivers impressively intimate footage of photogenic animals doing what they do. This one moves the line further to narrative storytelling with its sometimes forced comedy, some seemingly staged shenanigans, and a carefully constructed cast of characters. It may not be pure documentary filmmaking, but it's entertaining, spectacularly produced, and something different from all the other films that get to play in thousands of theaters.

Disney's combo pack provides the highest quality picture and sound plus a handful of good, but self-serving extras that remind us of the brand's considerable public relations value.

Buy Monkey Kingdom from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Disneynature: Bears Chimpanzee African Cats Oceans Earth Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos Wings of Life
New: Cinderella (2015) Peanuts Emmy Honored Collection
Born to Be Wild Island of Lemurs: Madagascar Walt Disney's Legacy Collection: True-Life Adventures - Volume 3: Creatures of the Wild

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Reviewed September 19, 2015.



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