‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ Makes It Official: They Rule

20th Century Studios
From left, Noa (played by Owen Teague), Soona (Lydia Peckham) and Anaya (Travis Jeffery) in “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.”

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is a sturdy new entry in the revived Planet of the Apes franchise, itself one of the more successful second go-rounds, commercially and artistically, of Hollywood’s modern corporate era. Yet the movie, like its three predecessors, is a fascinating case of content following form. As digital technology has improved film by film, to the point where the CGI chimps, gorillas and orangutans are more breathtakingly hyper-real than ever, the humans they’re replacing, both on the screen and in the future shock of the series’s storyline, have become increasingly two-dimensional. Between the coming of AI and a glance at the headlines, maybe we should just let the pixel monkeys take over for good.

“Kingdom” continues the upward trajectory for them and the free fall for us. Taking place 300 years after the events of the last three “Apes” – for those keeping track, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), the superior “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014) and “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017) – the new film centers on Noa (Owen Teague under the digital hair suit), an up-and-coming young simian in a peaceful village of eagle-taming chimpanzees. The opening scene immediately shows us what he and the film’s army of digital artisans can do: a vertigo-inducing leap, swing and climb to the top of the jungle-covered ruins of human skyscrapers, where Noa and his friends Soona (Lydia Peckham) and Anaya (Travis Jeffery) collect eagle eggs for their coming-of-age ceremony.

In a development straight out of the Joseph Campbell playbook, the village is attacked and the chimps enslaved by a battalion of warlike gorillas under the generalship of the fearsome Sylva (Eka Darville), leaving Noa alone in the world and vowing to rescue his people. “Kingdom” has already announced itself as the most action-intensive chapter of the rebooted “Apes,” and the assault on the village is visualized in fluidly propulsive and brutally efficient fashion. Director Wes Ball cut his teeth on the dystopian YA adaptation “The Maze Runner” (2014) and its sequels, and he’s adept at digital world building. Maybe too adept; there are moments when “Kingdom” resembles a state-of-the-art video game more than a movie.

Things both improve and devolve on the perilous journey to the seacoast stronghold of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a dictatorial bonobo chimp with the standard villain’s agenda (conquer the world, amass mystical powers, taunt the hero from behind a banquet table). During his trek, Noa meets Raka, a scholarly orangutan and the last remaining member of a priesthood venerating the name and legend of the original Caesar (played by Andy Serkis in the first three movies); as given life, wit and fabulous comic timing by actor Peter Macon, Raka is a delight – two parts Yoda to one part Robert Downey Jr.

Noa also meets a young human woman, Mae (Freya Allan), with an agenda of her own, and the three companions hit the road like a furry version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Allan gives a decent performance, but her character never makes sense – how Mae is able to stroll into a dilapidated human stronghold and get the electricity and computer system up and running is anyone’s guess, and that’s not the half of it. She’s a plot device more than a human being, and it doesn’t help that the actress is movie-star attractive in ways at odds with the general concept of mankind’s de-evolution. It looks like the hair and makeup department threw a little mud on her face and then applied the lip gloss. When we glimpse other humans toward the end of “Kingdom,” they’re absurdly hot, too, so I guess complete societal collapse was good for weeding the ugly genes out.

But I’m being catty, and this movie is pretty much all apes, all the time, despite a late-inning appearance by William H. Macy as a combination house pet/court jester. “Kingdom” will be a very big hit because the world it builds is incredibly tactile, the drama simple and strong, and the central performances (Allan excluded) as compelling as they need to be. Teague – he played the son in last year’s fine indie comedy “You Hurt My Feelings” – convinces us of Noa’s emotional distress and growing leadership skills, even if the pixelated “costume” makes him oddly look like a ringer for Mikey Day of “Saturday Night Live.” (I apologize if you cannot unsee that.) Macon, as mentioned, is a mid-movie high point as Raka, and Durand gives King Proximus the insecure swagger of a bully who knows where his weak spots are and is terrified someone will find out. Fears that any Planet of the Apes installments without Serkis would face an uphill climb are unfounded.

Which brings us to an interesting juncture in the series’s evolution. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” has been announced as the first chapter in a new trilogy, and while the provocative, even philosophical apocalyptic drama of the first three films no longer applies, the technology of moviemaking has progressed to the point that most audiences will be willing to follow wherever Noa and his primate friends want to take us. It’s the people who are the problem. The movie’s a step forward for the chimps and a few hops backward for mankind.