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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Dark Days in Monkey City' on Animal Planet

A graphic-novel take on animal politics and social structure (imagine a noir yet silly 'Meerkat Manor') bites off more than it can chew.

March 03, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

From Shakespeare to SpongeBob, there is, apparently, nothing John Rhys-Davies can't or won't do. The plummy-voiced, English-born Welsh actor is best known here for his roles in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- he played Gimli and gave voice to Treebeard -- and as Indiana Jones' faithful, portly companion Sallah. Indeed, Rhys-Davies is such a democratic actor that he appears in the film clip designed to entertain those waiting in line for the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland.

So it's not surprising that he would agree to narrate a show called "Dark Days in Monkey City" for Animal Planet -- friends and colleagues Sean Astin and Bill Nighy gathered accolades and cult followings for narrating "Meerkat Manor," on which "Dark Days" is clearly based. But now that it's out -- "Dark Days" premiered last week -- we can only hope that Rhys-Davies has learned what most actors of his stature tend to take to extremes -- the power of no.

While "Meerkat Manor" was a fascinating and addictive look at the social and political systems of its titular creatures, "Dark Days in Monkey City" is just plain silly, much more a lesson in over-the-top film editing than animal behavior.

Although it is based on the work of the Smithsonian Primate Project, the struggles of various tribes of toque macaques to dominate the most desirable portions of Sri Lanka's Monkey City has been so tarted up with graphic-novel noir -- including unnerving and inexplicable "300"-like blood splatters -- that it seems more satire than animal drama.

Certainly there is something inherently dramatic about these creatures, if only that they tend to live in Sri Lanka's picturesque ruined temples. But anthropomorphism run amok is the order of the day here. With names that include Portia, Lear, Hector, Gemini and Pandora, these poor primates are endowed with all manner of human emotions, tendencies and follies.

According to the hyper-dramatic narration, they ponder, they plot, they fret and exalt, do everything save speak in heroic couplets and experience schadenfreude. "This can mean only one thing -- war," Rhys-Davies intones in several variations, as if the monkeys were attempting to invade Poland or cross the Alps on elephants rather than get their little hands on a tasty fig tree.

Lost in all the script-chewing, graphic cutaways and soundtrack music designed to rearrange the viewer's cardiac rhythms are the actual monkeys themselves, who, if left to their own devices, are probably pretty interesting.

A scene in which the monkey upper crust is allowed to eat waterlily roots and seeds that are closest to the shore and therefore more protected from water predators while the lower class must take its chances in the depths is fascinating, while Portia -- referred to over and over again as "lowly Portia" -- and her baby are excellent examples of tribe members who are tolerated but considered expendable.

Unfortunately, far too much time is spent attempting to persuade the audience that deposed leader Lear and upstart Hector are somehow mirror images of their mythic namesakes, which leaves one wanting to tap the filmmakers on the shoulder and say, "You know, sometimes a monkey is just a monkey."

Even with John Rhys-Davies narrating.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Dark Days in Monkey City'

Where: Animal Planet

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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