‘Kingdom’ proves ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise still rules

“It’s a mad house! A mad house!”

It’s been more than 50 years since Charlton Heston’s anguished cry in the original “Planet of the Apes” movie, and our mania for America’s longest-running sci-fi franchise shows no signs of abating.

After a middling remake in 2001, 20th Century Fox gave the series a gritty, CGI-enhanced reboot with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” winning over a new generation. Two critically and commercially acclaimed sequels followed, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014) and “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

Disney’s 2019 purchase of Fox (subsequently renamed 20th Century Studios) left many fans worried that the flailing mouse house would monkey with the property’s chest-beating swagger.

They can breath a sigh of relief. The new “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” continues the legacy of quality storytelling and challenging themes that began back in 1968.

“Kingdom” picks up decades after the last film in the saga, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which ended the death of Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis). The new film follows Noa (Owen Teague), a young ape who lives in a small but peaceful village far removed from the wars that allowed Apes to become the dominant species.

Their tranquility is shattered when a ruthless group of apes, led by Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), pillage Noa’s village, taking the inhabitants captive and killing those who resist, including Noa’s father. Fueled by revenge, Noa sets off on a journey to find his family and restore his home.

Along the way, Noa befriends the orangutan Raka (Peter Macon) and a human girl, Mae (Freya Allan). Together, they will rediscover Caesar’s long-forgotten past, learn shocking truths about their present, and take actions that will shape the future of their planet.

“Kingdom” makes it a point to honor both the original film and the more recent trilogy. Although Serkis is absent from this installment, his presence looms large as the characters grapple with Caesar’s legacy and how subsequent leaders have twisted it to serve their own selfish purposes.

We see this play out in the characters’ conflicting visions for the future. Noa emerges as an unlikely champion of Caesar’s dream of human-ape coexistence while on either side, Proximus and Mae push for their own species to dominate.

Director Wes Ball delivers a sprawling, gorgeous film with big set pieces and stunning cinematography and effects (the motion capture for the ape characters remains top notch).

Ball also pays subtle homage to “Star Wars: A New Hope.” Noa, a young hero forged by unexpected tragedy and empowered by a dying, ancient religion, is clearly this story’s Luke Skywalker. Raka and Proximus embody the yin and yang of Caesar’s teaching, just as Obi Wan-Kenobi and Darth Vader represent the light and dark sides of the Force.

By borrowing the structural DNA and thematic resonance of “Star Wars,” Ball creates a world that is pleasingly familiar but different enough to stand on its own. Like George Lucas, who created the original trilogy, Bell gets that winking at the audience or playing things tongue-in-cheek spoils the fun.

And it gives me great pleasure to say that “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is a lot of fun. Pure cinematic, world-building, thematically-rich, adventure-filled science-fiction fun.

It’s a rare movie these days that lets you check your apprehensions at the door and leave completely satisfied — especially a Disney movie. But Ball, screenwriter Josh Friedman, and the cast and crew have pulled it off. Let’s hope they keep their stinkin’ paws on these damn dirty apes for years to come.

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