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'Monkey Kingdom'

A scene from Disneynature's "Monkey Kingdom" 

Every Earth Day weekend since 2007, Disney has released a spectacular new film in a series it calls Disneynature. Some are wide-angle overviews such as the inaugural film “Earth” and the 2009 “Oceans.” But others focus on a single species, such as “The Crimson Wing: The Mystery of the Flamingoes” in 2008 and last year’s “Bears.”

The latest Disneynature film, “Monkey Kingdom,” is the second devoted to our primate cousins, after 2012’s “Chimpanzee.” The latter film was irresistible, if marred by Tim Allen’s jokey narration. But “Monkey Kingdom” tugs our heartstrings to the top of the trees. With a lot of patience, and perhaps a little trickery, directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill have produced a simian “Cinderella.”

In the Sri Lankan jungle around an abandoned Buddhist temple, a macaque monkey called Maya is at the bottom of the social ladder. Literally. “High-born” macaques, such as the three wicked “queens” who groom alpha male Raja, live at the top of the fig tree, where the fruit is the ripest. Lesser members of the highly structured “troop” occupy lower branches, while outcasts such as Maya live on the ground, foraging for leftovers.

But one day her prince arrives: Kumar, a virile visitor from another troop, who comes looking for a mate. Before Raja chases him off, Kumar leaves Maya with a keepsake: Kip, born six months later.

Kip’s cartoonishly huge head conveys sweetness like a gumball machine, but Maya’s life as a single mother is pure melodrama, complete with a foiled kidnapping and a giant-lizard attack.

Our resourceful heroine is forced to venture into a faraway kingdom where the primates walk on two legs and wear colored rags. Scenes of Maya and some other outcast macaques scavenging at a schoolhouse birthday party and an urban produce market are a treat (if not a cheat).

Adding heroic action to the comedy and melodrama, Kumar returns to his young family in time to help the troop wrest its territory from invaders.

As in a Hollywood production, there are colorful supporting characters — from friendly peacocks and elephants to menacing leopards and bears — and vivid sets, especially the eerily decrepit temple.

Despite the intra-species warfare, allusions to the mating imperative and a quick image of a macaque getting snatched by a predator, “Monkey Kingdom” stays in safe territory with kitschy pop songs and kid-friendly narration by Tina Fey. The next time we hear, “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees,” we’ll realize it applies to all us.


What “Monkey Kingdom” • Three stars out of four • Run time 1:21 • Rating G • Content Some mild peril

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.