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Monkey Kingdom is the newest release from Disneynature, and it’s the eighth in a line of Earth Day-inspired films featuring breathtaking scenery and adorable animals. This latest installment, narrated by Tina Fey, focuses on a troop of macaques in South Asia, with the gaze following a female named Maya and her newborn Kip. Disneynature describes Maya as “the clever and resourceful blonde-bobbed monkey,” and insists “she’s determined to give her son a leg up in the world.” As I watched the movie with my elder daughter this morning, I thought about how our representation of animals says as much about them as it does about us.
As much as the documentary style aims to provide a glimpse into reality, that representation is always skewed by the activities of the subjects and the goals of the producers. Maya is, for instance, only one macaque in only one troop, but the cameras hone in on her story because it’s a story audiences like—the single (for a time, at least) mother making it good in the world. The social hierarchy natural to macaques is presented as oppressive to Maya, and the narration imposes human thoughts and feelings onto her to fit the narrative under construction. This is, in essence, standard practice with Disneynature, where the humanness of the animals makes them likeable to us. I don’t deny that the Temple Troop of Monkey Kingdom is likable, but I’m concerned about why audiences so strongly desire to see ourselves reflected in the subjects.
As much as it’s a movie about macaques, the gaze is inherently human, and the anthropomorphism runs rampant. Every time Fey referred to “the sisters,” the high-status macaques in Maya’s troop, I nearly forgot I wasn’t watching Mean Girls instead. The plot centers on Maya’s supposed efforts to achieve social mobility, though the search for food occupies all members of the troop and the deeply-ingrained hierarchy serves the needs of the whole troop. I find it telling how eager we are to see Maya and her son rise without considering the consequences within her context—namely that her success does not in any way alter the fundamental structure of macaque troops. There’s still a hierarchy. But we do that in human stories too.
The story also elides the ways that Maya’s social ascension (by the film’s end), is largely circumstantial. A rival troop attacks and Maya’s family is evicted; they regroup and recapture their home, Castle Rock. And all the while, the language of the narration refers to Maya’s troop as “ours” and “the home team.” It ignores the legitimate needs of other macaques in the competing troop. And, while Maya shines in the urban environment of their exile, the narration rejoices in the diminishment of “the sisters” and their alpha male Rajah. Yet why are we to care less about those macaques and their needs, simply because they weren’t selected as the film’s protagonists?
When the film ends, Maya and Kumar (Kip’s father), cuddle together with their newborn while Kip explores nearby. This, we are told, is a triumphant conclusion for the story of Maya’s social climb. The narration tells us that Kip’s baby sister will have a “secure” world, though we know from the earlier parts of the story that not even the highest ranking macaques are really secure. The troop rises and falls largely as one, in spite of the film’s best efforts to impose human values of individualism onto a troop of macaques.
What’s particularly interesting to me is the persistent socioeconomic references to Maya and Kip, a decidedly human invention, yet the film questions how much the macaques even understand the death of one of their members. It seems clear enough that they recognize and mourn in their way, yet the film presents their basic understanding of death as uncertain even as it plays a role in their everyday lives. I enjoyed the antics of the macaques in Monkey Kingdom, and I loved sharing the experience with my daughter, but I’m left wondering how much we see what we want to see when it comes to nature, Disneyfied or otherwise. The gaze for Monkey Kingdom applies a human agenda, and the question for those of us watching is this: does that fuel us to glorify ourselves, or to reflect the ways that all creation must be filtered not through our gaze, but through God’s?
Image Credit: Disney
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