‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ Review: Apes Awaken

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, an exciting and visually spectacular extension of the Planet of the Apes series, set generations after the Caesar-led entries.
User Rating: 8

For all the grief that can be given when it comes to sequels/prequels/reboots/remakes, it stands to reason why The Planet of the Apes franchise has endured. For one – an entire planet of apes seemingly has much to offer. Another thing – people like these movies. One or two entries aside (and they are at least interesting), this franchise has remained remarkably consistent coming off the 1968 original. The reboot series that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes took things in an impressively new direction that benefited from amazing visual effects created by Weta FX, the work of star Andy Serkis, and assured direction from Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves. Now we have Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. While there’s perhaps an adjustment to be made when it comes to introducing a new set of characters and ideas to branch off from, the visuals on display, along with the consideration for what kind of storytelling helps these films stand out, allows for another rich entry in the long-running series.

It would be easy to say the 2010’s Planet of the Apes storyline had nowhere to go after the conclusion of 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes. Still, one must remember how futile it may have seemed to try and follow up the original film, let alone its 1970 sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which still features one of the craziest endings out there for a mainstream release. By comparison, Kingdom has a much easier way to bring audiences back into this world – push it 300 years into the future while remaining in continuity.

See Also: ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ Review: Avoiding Repossession

So that’s where we begin – many generations after Caesar gave all to protect his ape clan, we are now following a pack of chimpanzees who live peacefully and train falcons as a right of passage. They know nothing of Caesar, but another clan led by an ape who has twisted Caesar’s teachings (Kevin Durand’s Proximus) has chosen to round up the unassuming chimps, leaving just one behind. This is Noa (Owen Teague), son of the chief, who must now travel across the land to rescue his family and friends. Along the way, he will be joined by a wise orangutan, Raka (Peter Macon), and a young human woman (Frey Allan), who appears smarter than the remaining humans the apes are familiar with as scavengers with low intellect.

At 145 minutes, this is the longest Planet of the Apes film yet, but not without reason. Set at a slower pace, director Wes Ball (The Maze Runner series) and writer Josh Friedman (Avatar: The Way of Water) put in the work to not only reintroduce the idea of what a planet of apes looks like but have us really settle into it. Sections of this film could play as short films unto themselves, as Kingdom relishes the opportunity to combine thoughtful character work with spectacular visuals (largely filmed on real locations).

The fact that action scenes are hardly on my mind in regards to all of this speaks well to how much of a thrill it is to just be invested in what’s presented in front of us, not unlike taking in the world of Pandora (Avatar’s influence feels vital throughout, and that’s meant in a very positive way, let alone speaks to its continued relevance). That said, also not unlike James Cameron’s sci-fi epics, when there are indeed times for characters to throwdown or rise to new acrobatic challenges, the film knows to engage in that sort of excitement. The fact that it’s able to create a real sense of stakes by having the characters be very clearly vulnerable is even more meaningful when seeing how this film doesn’t take that aspect for granted. Apes, together, may be strong, but they are not invincible.

Even with a sense of danger in mind, however, the other thing Kingdom has going for it is its sense of adventure. Where there was a lot of darkness in the previous film, here’s a story that keeps the characters in bright daylight, allows for discovery and some amusing interactions, and wants to allow for the inherent somberness of the situation to be countered by letting the audience marvel at how it’s all visually represented. These are summer blockbusters, after all, and finding ways to build intrigue through large-scale spectacle in ways unique to this series is a fine way to bring audiences into the theater.

Does any of this come at a cost? The notion of reviving this series means hitting on established series tropes or possibly becoming too self-referential. On the downside, by nature of simply being a movie, conflict must arise and upset a status quo, building toward some inevitable conclusions. Similarly, being part of a franchise means establishing threads for where to go next. I’m not sure I felt more intrigued by the potential of what lies ahead, as opposed to seeing more of the relationships taking place between different ape tribes.

With that said, the story this film tells is a good one. There is a lot of “movie” here, and it’s hard for me to knock a film too hard for attempting to be smart about how to detail each of its ideas regarding the philosophies of the different characters, how we should understand the current state of living for various creatures, and what it means to have certain kinds of access. As it stands, I appreciated how this film chose to involve aspects of the stories that came before it without going overboard (again, jumping way into the future helps with that). There’s also plenty to be said about how these characters convey what’s happening.

Trading in the idea of an all-star cast for a couple of up-and-comers, character actors, and vocal performers is ultimately a benefit for keeping us invested in how things may shake out. As far as standouts go, William H. Macy arrives with a tricky role that plays to his strengths. At the same time, Macon brings good-natured gravitas to another wise orangutan character (RIP Maurice). Taking on the lead position, Teague’s Noa is a solid, if traditional, hero type who accomplished what was needed and has a proper build toward his emotional position reached by the film’s end (nothing is ever simple, especially when it comes to apes vs. humans).

As noted at the top, moving forward in this established world with a new cast and filmmakers could be a daunting challenge, given how well-liked the Caesar-led trilogy is. Based on Wes Ball’s abilities to make The Maze Runner films as effective as they were as sci-fi-action flicks that happened to be hitting at the end of the YA adaptation craze, I was excited to see what he would bring to Planet of the Apes, and he delivered. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is a well-thought-out entry that invites us back into this world, continues to excel at the visual representation of an overgrown planet dominated by apes, and maintains a sense of wonder while doing so. Its aspirations for how to keep things going may threaten to keep things on a dark path that is not unfamiliar to this franchise. Still, given how much I enjoy this series, I have enough working in my favor to keep feeling as though it’s a wonderful day whenever a new Apes film comes along.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters and IMAX on May 10, 2024.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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