Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Studios, PG-13)

One of my joys as a movie lover is to recommend this newer crop of Planet of the Apes films. 2014’s Dawn was certainly a major hit, but I’m amazed at the number of folks who tell me that’s the only one of them they’ve seen. 2011’s Rise kicked things off in decent enough fashion, but Dawn and War — both directed by The Batman’s Matt Reeves — were innovative, thoughtful, and gripping in pretty much every possible way. I’m ecstatic to report that Kingdom definitely does those films justice while finding new ideas and tones to explore.

This new chapter begins in a time where apes are unquestionably Earth’s dominant species. It is several generations after the passing of Caesar, the lead ape of the previous trilogy, who was played beautifully by Andy Serkis through groundbreaking motion-capture technology. If you have an emotional attachment to this series like I do, the visual eulogy to Caesar in this film’s cold open will put your heart at ease — this new group of filmmakers are clearly honoring what came before. This continues as we follow young chimpanzee Noa (Owen Teague in motion-capture).

Noa belongs to the “Eagle Clan,” a tribe of apes that have made the domestication of eagles a key part of their way of life. When Noa and his friends come across a discarded article of human clothing, it becomes a point of controversy and suspicion, leading a more warlike ape tribe to their doorstep. They take the rest of the village prisoner while assuming that Noa has died after a nasty fall. After returning to consciousness, Noa sets off to find his family and the rest of his clan. Along the way, he meets Raka (Peter Macon), a wise orangutan who teaches him about Caesar’s reign and goals of peace and mutual respect between humans and apes.

All the while, a young human woman named Mae (Freya Allan) has been following Noa (she’s the person the piece of clothing belonged to). When they learn they are not safe from the villainous tribe, the unlikely trio sticks together for safety. The second half of the film then deals with the goals of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), the bonobo leader of the tribe tracking our heroes’ moves, and who has enslaved Noa’s clan. He claims Caesar’s name for himself as a way to get other apes on his side, but his message is at best a cruel curdling of what Caesar stood for.

What screenwriter Josh Friedman and director Wes Ball get across so perfectly is the intellectual tension of wondering who we should be rooting for. Should apes continue to be the dominant species or not? Should humans retaliate in some way, or would that ultimately cause more suffering than it’s worth? What is the right path to evolution in this instance? This film, like its immediate predecessors, honors the fantastic potential of speculative science fiction inherent in the franchise’s very conceit. Here, Mae is our vector point for a lot of this thematic work. Noa, like Caesar, is a perfect avatar for the audience, the difference being that he is not immediately thrust into a position of leadership. Rather, he sees the entire situation from a very unique vantage point of relative innocence. These less obvious character dynamics breathe so much new life into the series by reframing the conflict at the heart of the story.

It should be noted as well that the motion-capture animation and performances — in concert with gorgeous on-location cinematography by Gyula Pados — are stunning and not to be taken for granted. Throughout the 2010s trilogy, there were obviously enormous advancements made in this type of animation, and now we’re at a point where it all blends together so seamlessly that it runs the risk of not being appreciated. I’m not sure that any one performance in this film is as phenomenal as what Andy Serkis did (although Durand is outstanding), but regardless, the work by both groups — the actors and the animators — is as believable and well-grounded as ever.

Though the tone of this film is slightly different than Dawn or War, it’s no less profound while being a bit more of a general adventure. That balance between profundity and punch makes Kingdom easily worthy of a crown. | George Napper

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