Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes


Considering that nearly all of its performances are motion-capture ones, I didn't expect to spend so much time at Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes marveling at the nuances of naturalistic human acting. But while director Wes Ball's new installment in the rebooted franchise is gripping and frequently exciting and a hell of a lot of fun, what most floored me wasn't the action, but rather the faces.

Through their miraculously expressive emotional renderings, some of them almost absurdly minimalist, Ball's computer-animated primates appear wholly capable of thought, feeling, and even the subtle reveal of subtext. This, in itself, isn't a shock. Andy Serkis, with his Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, paved the way for character-based astonishments of this sort more than 20 years ago, and Serkis' Caesar in the three most recent Planet of the Apes offerings – 2011's Rise of the …, 2014's Dawn of the..., and 2017's War for the... – was, no joke, a motion-capture portrayal of Shakespearean power. Yet those films were still largely, if not primarily, focused on humans. With only a handful of exceptions, apes and their brethren are the whole show here, and if their roles in the narrative are disappointingly functional, at least the hairy beings themselves provide no end of visual amazement. Their thoughtful readings and guttural grunts supply loads of aural amazement, too.

As screenwriter Josh Friedman's canny prelude directly connects Kingdom to its predecessors while also enabling it to be its own thing, Ball's movie opens immediately after the climax of War before making a nifty time-line jump “many generations” after Caesar's death. With the previous trilogy's man-made virus having effectively swapped the evolutionary positions, apes now rule the world, while the humans that remain are mute scavengers who travel in packs and are regarded as little more than nuisances. Before long, our new protagonist is revealed to be Noa (Owen Teague), a try-hard chimpanzee whom we quickly perceive to be an adolescent. Like innumerable teen heroes, Noah has a feisty gal pal/secret crush (Lydia Peckham's Soona) and a goofy bestie (Travis Jeffery's Anaya), as well as a loving mom (Sara Wiseman) and domineering, disapproving dad (Neil Sandlilands). Pop is the leader of this particular ape clan, a tribe dedicated to the training of eagles as kindred spirits, and when Noa's latest accidental blunder causes him to briefly leave the village, the youth returns to find it under siege by a rival tribe. Domiciles are burned to the ground by horse-riding marauders, shrieking apes are hauled away in nets, and the attack's hulking gorilla leader (Eka Darville's Sylva) carries out a significant murder with a mighty roar of “For Caesar!” As Andy Serkis' Caesar was a pacifist (at least toward his own kind) who famously decreed “Ape not kill ape,” this is quite the surprise.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Truth be told, there won't be an abundance of surprises ahead, as Kingdom subsequently settles into a rather formulaic narrative groove. Noa sets off to find and rescue his remaining family and friends. He encounters a wise, sage orangutan (Peter Macon's endearing Raka) who becomes a traveling companion and instructs Noa on the history of Serkis' Caesar. The pair meet a lone, voiceless human whom they christen Nova (Freya Allan), and who turns out to be heading in the same direction on a mission of her own. There are engaging, amusing detours involving this trio, as well as a priceless callback to Rise that provides the likely reason that Friedman named his hero “Noa.” But we've been on Lord of the Rings-y quests of this type before, and the plotting doesn't get noticeably edgier or more complex after our travelers reach their destination and we meet Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), the tyrant who kidnapped Noa's clan for slave labor and the opening of a human-built fortress housing untold treasures. By the time Noa and his allies were formulating a plan for defeating Proximus and freeing the enslaved masses, I started getting the nagging sense that Kingdom would devolve into a prototypical “Let's go home” action blockbuster. You know, one in which contrivance begins dictating the story, spectacle eventually overwhelms character, and our battle-scarred hero takes a meaningful pause toward the finale before choking out a world-weary “Let's go home.” Happily, though, I was slightly wrong about all this. Apes don't use contractions.

Man alive, though, do these apes ever use their faces! And despite being mostly underwhelmed by Kingdom's presentational arc – I found it the least successful of the last four Planet outings – I won't pretend that I was anything but riveted by the extraordinarily supple visual magic. Even during the initial half hour, which is mostly just scene-setting, my mouth was frequently agape at the stunning realness of the feat, and at how the motion-capture technique seemed to add further dimensions of expressiveness than humans are capable of.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Twenty-five-year-old Teague has been a solid-or-better actor at least since 2017's It, yet with the aid of technological wizardry, he proves to be an exceptional one in his role as Noa, his primate's fear, misery, resolve, bravery, and teen awkwardness practically bleeding from the screen. All of Ball's unseen performers appear similarly motivated, and whenever Durand's Proximus is around, it's impossible to look anywhere else. The ape's centerpiece braying (“What a wonderful da-a-a-ay!”) is glorious, yet I was even more taken by his unanticipated stillness. In one scene, an underling makes an unfortunate mess of a plate of snacks, and Proximus stared at the poor sap with such unsettling calm-before-the-storm fury that I found myself holding my breath in giddy, anticipatory terror. It was like watching Pesci in GoodFellas right before Tommy shot Spider to death.

Among the few humans in sight, Allan, with her haunting wide-set eyes, is enticingly inscrutable as Nova, and William H. Macy delivers an enjoyably skeevy turn as a morally bankrupt soul who has chosen to side with the primates. But Ball also treats us to a number of pleasures that aren't performance-based. I didn't think much of the director's 2014-18 Maze Runners – that trilogy of Hunger Games knock-offs that felt indistinguishable from every other dystopian-future YA serial that landed last decade. His work here, however, feels like it's in an entirely different class, with the first half's adventure sequences (especially the playful opener involving a procured eagle egg) boasting Indiana Jones-esque vitality and the second half serving up a measure of legitimate grandeur. He even comes through with a few nearly poetic tableaux. Not as many as Dawn/War director Matt Reeves did, but just enough – a centuries-neglected airport terminal covered in moss; a trio of apes peering over a child's alphabet book – to lend Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes more than a dash of genuine style. Ball's film may be a prototypical summer blockbuster, but it's not without artfulness, and the finale nicely sets up future installments without making you feel that all the best times lie ahead. The time spent here is plenty satisfying.

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