'Monkey Kingdom' and Disney's Long Romance With the Call of the Wild

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Movie fans looking to get a break from all the mall cops and fast-and-furious gearheads this past weekend had an unlikely bit of primal filmmaking to choose from with Disney’s Monkey Kingdom, the latest eco-conscious offering from Disneynature. Since launching in 2008, the young Disney division has sought to structure a viable business model around family (and environmentally) friendly nature documentaries with titles like Oceans, African Cats and Bears.

Monkey Kingdom, earned just $4.7 million in its first weekend, well behind the $8.8 million opening gross of Disneynature’s flagship release Earth, which finished its 2009 run with $32 million in 2009. Modest as those numbers may be, Disney has other reasons beyond box office to want to keep Disneynature blooming. For one, it speaks directly to the company’s legacy, continuing a tradition begun by Walt Disney himself.

Even though Disney’s name might be synonymous with cartoon favorites like Bambi and Cinderella, the animator also had a lifelong fascination with the natural world. An entire generation of kids benefitted from his love of the great outdoors with True-Life Adventures, a series of nature-themed features and shorts that Disney produced for movie theaters, television and classrooms from 1948 to 1960. Boasting titles like Seal Island and The Living Desert, these films dispatched camera crews all over the world to document landscapes and creatures that the majority of American audiences would likely never see.

Watch a clip of ‘Seal Island:’

Disneynature’s films are made in the same spirit. Earth, for example, invited audiences to witness how creatures survive in three very different habitats: the Arctic tundra, the African bush and the oceans depths between the tropics and Antarctica. Monkey Kingdom, meanwhile, is framed as the tale of Maya, a Sri Lankan toque macaque monkey living as part of a hierarchical primate society in a forest setting known as Castle Rock. During the course of the 82-minute movie, Maya falls in love with an aspiring alpha male, Kumar, and gives birth to a son, Kip. This monkey family then has to contend with an invasion by a rival gang, which temporarily exiles them to a nearby city before they return to re-claim their rightful home. It’s not unlike the plot of The Lion King…minus “Hakuna Matata.”

Nature purists may take issue with the film’s anthropomorphized account of these monkeys’ lives, but Paul Baribault, vice president of marketing at Walt Disney Studios and a key executive at Disneynature, says that relatable characters are what ultimately what viewers are looking for. “We’ve found that audiences are looking for character stories they can connect to and have some relevance to what they experience in their daily life,” he tells Yahoo Movies. “This film brings forward the amazing struggle of Maya to protect and do right by her child. That’s something all families can relate to.”

And, at a time when Disneynature’s parent company is focusing more and more on building blockbusters like the Marvel movies and Star Wars — big-budget franchises that can yield big returns — the label’s films seem to have a built-in box office ceiling. Disneynature’s second-highest grossing film after Earth is Chimpanzee ($28.9 million), followed by Oceans ($19.4 million), Bears ($17.7 million) and African Cats (15.4 million) at the back of the pack. (Two films, 2008’s The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingo and 2011’s Wings of Life bypassed American theaters altogether, going straight to home video instead.)

Like most Disneynature features, Monkey Kingdom’s budget hasn’t been officially announced, but its lengthy production schedule — Baribault says that shooting lasted almost three years in Sri Lanka — suggests that the film wasn’t an inexpensive proposition, though probably still far less pricey than a single week on Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Watch a trailer for ‘Monkey Kingdom:’

One way that Disneynature seems able to offset questions about the movies’ profitability is by pointing to their charitable efforts. Like every Disneynature film, Monkey Kingdom has a philanthropic component: A portion of all the opening weekend tickets sold will be donated to Conservation International, an organization that works to protect monkeys and other endangered species. The label is being incorporated into other aspects of the Disney empire as well; Baribault says that Disneynature footage will be part of the nighttime show, “Rivers of Light,” debuting at the Animal Kingdom theme park in 2016.

Baribault doesn’t foresee any imminent conclusion to the life cycle of the division’s theatrical releases. He says that three films are in production right now, including Born in China, which is slated for release in 2016 and will track such native animals as pandas, golden monkeys and the elusive snow leopard, of which very little footage exists. “Not every creature on the planet can support a 75-minute feature, he says. “We look for what the next opportunity will be…to give people that experience of getting out there [in nature] in a spectacular way.