Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Movie Review: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024)

The 21st century Planet of the Apes franchise has been given a fresh set of legs, seven years after the conclusion of the superb "prequel" trilogy, with Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.  

Set 300 years or so after the events of War for the Planet of the Apes and the death of tribe leader Caesar, Kingdom introduces us to a whole new clan of chimpanzees, one that has figured out how to train birds of prey both as pets and protectors.  A young ape named Noa (played with wide-eyed naivete by Owen Teague), along with friends Anaya and Soona, are engaged in a rite of passage: collecting eagle eggs to take home and raise from birth.  The trio succeeds after a scary near-fall, but that night Noa encounters what appears to be a feral human (No humans have been seen in years and they are all thought to be non-verbal and animalistic thanks to effects from the simian flu), and his egg is crushed in the scuffle.  Noa promptly goes off to find a new egg but runs afoul of another clan of apes, this one armored and wielding homemade cattle prods, and the marauders tail Noa's horse back to his home and burn the place down, before kidnapping the entire tribe.  Noa is left for dead but embarks on a quest to rescue his family and friends, accompanied by an erudite orangutan named Raka (who informs him of Caesar's history and teachings), and the feral human (a poker-faced Freya Allan) from the village (who is not what she seems).
This film takes its time to get going, and like its predecessors, keeps things very personal and small-scope.  We get to know Noa and his companions before they're plunged into the action of the central plot, and the first half plays out much like a Western.  The character of Raka (in an understated but wholly relatable mo-cap performance by Peter Macon) is a delight - a patient, wise mentor for Noa, imparting on him Caesar's philosophy of fairness and mercy while also projecting strength.  The human, whom the apes call Nova (after the little girl from War), reveals that she can in fact speak, and tells Noa who abducted his clan: a fearsome bonobo chimpanzee named Proximus (brought to life with articulate, charismatic menace by Kevin Durand) who uses kidnapped apes as slave labor to help him open a massive underground vault left by the humans.

The screenplay by Josh Friedman stays true to the prequel trilogy, particularly Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, by giving all the major characters good and bad qualities, and understandable motivations.  Proximus could've been written as a purely evil demagogue, and while he is that to a certain extent, he's also very persuasive and we can see why he's gotten so many apes (and even a professorial human played by William H. Macy) to follow him.  The human woman, whose real name is revealed as Mae, is a tough, plucky survivor but her motives aren't totally altruistic and thus Noa isn't sure he can trust her.  As the film wears on we become less certain which side has the moral high ground.  

At its core Kingdom is a commentary on tribalism, demagoguery and the co-opting of mythic figures to justify the ends; Proximus invokes Caesar's name repeatedly but espouses none of his actual beliefs aside from "apes together strong," which of course only applies when it suits Proximus.  Raka on the other hand actually understands and believes in what Caesar stood for.  Lots of practical real-world applications can be gleaned from these themes and I'm sure I don't need to list them here.  

The special effects stack up well against the previous three films; the motion capture once again allows the actors to emote and move like flesh and blood characters, while the detail and texture of the CG often makes you forget you're looking at animation.  Also like those films, the action sequences are kept sparse and simple, and play out as a result of character conflicts as opposed to being there for their own sake.  There's an old-school feel to these films in spite of their being state-of-the-art technical achievements.  The Proximus compound is a masterful piece of art direction, a part human-built, part ape-built structure located on what appears to be the California coast and nestled among a fleet of wrecked, decaying ships.  

On the whole the film doesn't quite have the narrative thrust of the previous trilogy and central character of Noa doesn't quite resonate like Caesar did, but then Caesar's are very big shoes to fill, and there's plenty of room for Noa to grow into a compelling protagonist in his own right.  This film plants very clear seeds for a sequel and I'm very much interested in seeing where director Wes Bell and screenwriter Josh Friedman take this new trilogy.  Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is yet another win for this franchise and the followup will be key in determining if this movie endures like the prequels did.

I give KOTPOTA ***1/2 out of ****.

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