REVIEW – ‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ beautifully continues the epic legacy of its predecessors

When 20th Century Fox rebooted its seemingly dormant Planet of the Apes franchise in 2011, few expected Rise of the Planet of the Apes to launch three films that not only collectively earned $1.6 billion worldwide but also become one of the best trilogies in cinema history. You can baulk at that all you like, but it deserves to (and, for some odd reason, rarely does) stand alongside trilogies like The Lord of the RingsStar WarsToy Story, and The Dark Knight.

Seven years after we said farewell to Caesar, those damn dirty apes are back with a new sequel that beautifully continues the epic legacy of its predecessors. While Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes takes a while to truly get cracking, once it does, it’s really quite enthralling cinema. With a fresh narrative that thankfully refuses to lazily retread old ground, a host of charming new characters, miraculous CGI work from the wizards at Wētā FX, and a big dose of heart and humanity, this solid next chapter sets a new course for a franchise with seemingly plenty of gas left in its tank.

Set “many generations” after the events of the previous films, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes introduces us to Noa (Owen Teague), a young chimpanzee living peacefully with his “Eagle Clan” of apes ruled by his stoic father, Koro (Neil Sandilands). Known as the Master of Birds, Koro oversees each clan member’s journey of raising and bonding with an eagle companion; a ritual his son is about to undertake.

While out scouting for an eagle egg, Noa’s village is viciously attacked by a band of marauding apes with a mission to enslave other clans “for Caesar.” Left for dead after a brutal encounter with the group’s imposing gorilla general Silva (Eka Darville), Noa embarks on a mission to rescue his people from the clutches of ape king Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a ruthless dictator who has twisted the ancient teachings of Caesar to his own nefarious will.

Along his journey, Noa stumbles upon wise old orangutan Raka (Peter Macon), the last member of the Order of Caesar who remembers the true virtues of the noble leader and what he sacrificed to give apes the bountiful life they now enjoy. The pair are soon stalked by a seemingly mute young human Mae (Freya Allen) who ultimately reveals her uncommon ability to speak and personal agenda in assisting with ending Proximus’ rule.

The task of crafting a sequel to a commercially and critically successful but now-defunct franchise is an unenviable task. It’s the difficult sort of “soft reboot” mission that so often fails (think PrometheusThe MummyHellboy etc). But director Wes Ball and screenwriter Josh Friedman seem to innately understand that one must respect and honour what has come before if one wants to move a franchise forward successfully. Caesar’s legacy looms large over this new chapter but in deference rather than dominance, particularly the framing of Noa as our new protagonist.

Played with tremendous heart and vulnerability by Teague, Noa is an instantly empathetic figure who is thrust onto a perilous journey and into a leadership role he never intended to take. Andy Serkis is a mighty tough act to follow, but Teague impresses with a character that is clearly destined for deeper, darker, and more complex narrative arcs in the future. Durand is perfectly cast as the menacing Proxima. He adds a dash of alluring charm to this complicated villain to allow the audience to see just how he rose to such power. Friedman’s script is wise to give Proxima a deep antagonist’s motivation that may not elicit sympathy from the viewer for his nefarious deeds but total understanding.

After three (strangely unsuccessful) Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects, it’s really saying something that the astonishing visual creations within Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes reach a new level of achievement for this franchise. There’s never a single moment in this film where you’re not fully convinced you’re watching actual primates acting in front of you. The stunning detailing in their fur and skin and the level of emotions conveyed through facial expressions is mind-blowing stuff. Likewise with the gorgeous environment building; another area where Wētā FX shines. It’s undoubtedly the best motion-capture work we’ve seen since Avatar: The Way of Water.

For those hoping for an all-out action blockbuster like fellow simian tale Godzilla x Kong: The New EmpireKingdom of the Planet of the Apes isn’t exactly in the same wheelhouse. Naturally, there are several wonderfully thrilling action sequences, particularly the tense finale set within the claustrophobic confines of a rust-riddled shipping yard. But Ball is more concerned with character than he is with chaos. However, that’s occasionally to the film’s detriment. With an overly long running time of 145 minutes, the narrative and pacing drag towards the middle, but never to fatal levels. You have to expect such things in a soft reboot that has a lot of new ground to cover.

While Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is nowhere near as emotionally resonant as Dawn of/War for the Planet of the Apes, let’s remember neither was Rise. You have to walk before you can run and Ball is clearly laying the foundations for richer pathos and depth in the future. Thankfully, he’s found gold with Noa as the ape to lead us there. This one has a kicker of an ending that will leave you yearning for the next chapter. A terrifically entertaining, visually stunning, and undeniably worthy successor to a tremendous trilogy, this is exactly how you push a franchise into the future. The apes are back, baby.

Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Cast: Owen Teague, Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Peter Macon, William H. Macy, Travis Jeffery, Lydia Peckham, Neil Sandilands, Eka Darville
Director: Wes Ball
Producers: Wes Ball, Joe Hartwick Jr., Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Jason T. Reed
Screenplay: Josh Friedman
Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Production Design: Daniel T. Dorrance
Costume Design: Mayes C. Rubeo
Editor: Dan Zimmerman
Music: John Paesano

Running Time: 145 minutes
Release Date: 9th May 2024 (Australia)

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