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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Movie review: ‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ an exciting new world for franchise

From left, Raka (Peter Macon), Noa (Owen Teague) and Mae (Freya Allan) in “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.”  (20th Century Studios)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Since Charlton Heston first gazed upon the remnants of the Statue of Liberty emerging from a sandy beach in horror, 56 years ago, the “Planet of the Apes” movies have been extremely popular with moviegoing audiences. The appeal of these earnest, big-budget spectacle movies is the opportunity to explore complex characters, power dynamics and wrestle with social issues within the franchise’s allegorical representation of our world. They’re not escapism, but reflection.

The best “Apes” movies offer us insight into ourselves and the world that we’ve created, and so does the latest installment, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” the 10th “Apes” film, which manages to encompass everything we love about these movies into one sprawling story.

After the franchise ran its course in the 1970s, and the 2001 Tim Burton one-off, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver nailed an “Apes” reboot in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Directed by Rupert Wyatt, the film featured the story of Caesar, an intelligent ape who leads an uprising, the character a callback to the 1972 film “The Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” Embodied by Andy Serkis in a truly remarkable motion-capture performance and created digitally by the artists at the New Zealand-based Wētā Workshop, the memorable Caesar was beloved by audiences, especially as his story deepened over the course of two sequels, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Matt Reeves.

Arriving seven years after “War,” and set hundreds of years after the events of that film, “Kingdom” feels like a reboot and a sequel, and an opportunity to set off a new “Apes” cycle for the 2020s. Director Wes Ball, who previously helmed the surprisingly great “Maze Runner” movies, proves to be a worthy successor to what Reeves cemented for the franchise, delivering a character-driven story that wrestles with issues of equality, morality and diplomacy, punctuated by intense action sequences.

On this ape planet, the human population has been decimated and rendered dumb by the same virus that made apes intelligent and capable of speech. Our hero is the young Noa, (a terrific Owen Teague), an adolescent ape from the Eagle clan, who live in harmony with nature, training large golden eagles. Noa’s dreams of becoming an Eagle master like his father are dashed when his village comes under attack by a gang of masked apes armed with cattle prods. Left for dead, Noa sets off alone in the hopes of rescuing his loved ones.

It’s a classic hero’s journey as the young naif leaves home and learns the harsh truth about the world. He connects with a guide along the way, Raka (Peter Macon, a scene-stealer), a wise orangutan who teaches him the legend of Caesar, and his message of unity among the apes. When a feral human girl (Freya Allan) tags along, Raka encourages Noa to show her compassion – she’s just a dumb human after all.

The trio achieves a fragile unity, based on Caesar’s teachings, but are soon ripped apart by “the Masks.” They’re kidnapped to the coastal compound of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a power-hungry, compelling cult leader, who has twisted Caesar’s words into violence and manipulation.

As he proved with “Maze Runner,” Ball has a knack for rendering a kind of stylish, youthful dystopia, and the point of view and aesthetic of “Kingdom” speaks to that. Written by Josh Friedman, this is a story about a young leader shaken from his nest and taught about how the world works in cruel ways. The sheer scope of the storytelling and the sophisticated world-building is awe-inspiring on the big screen. The remnants of human civilization are overgrown with verdant greenery, presenting our world in a new way. At the chaotic ape colony on the beach, rusting hulks of massive ships loom out of blue waters, contrasting with red sails and white sand. There is beauty among the terror, and an element of anxious unpredictability thrashing our characters like the waves that crash against the cliffs.

But the deft spectacle creation would be nothing without the characters and performances. The film kicks into gear with the introduction of the winning Raka and escalates with Proximus Caesar’s swaggering entrance as a charismatic preacher who has twisted a messiah’s words into hate. But Noa is the heart of the film, his clear green eyes rendered with such emotion by the artisans at Wētā, conveying hope, horror, betrayal and ultimately acceptance.

Ball and Friedman’s ambitious storytelling is a bit overstuffed, offering a plethora of different issues with which to tangle – anti-gun messaging, religious metaphor, questions about our relationship to technology, human rights – but they set up an exciting new world centered around a new ape for us to believe in, at least for this moment.