KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Has Great Building Blocks But Lacks the Secret Sauce to Make it Special

Two apes and a human prepare to stand against a foe
[L-R]: Peter Macon as RAKA, Owen Teague as NOA, Freya Allan as MAE 

The PLANET OF THE APES franchise began in 1968. The first film boasts memorable quotes, visionary production and special effects, and one of the greatest endings of all film history. While the quality of succeeding films has waxed and waned, the questions and themes at the heart of the series remain timeless and relevant and stump us to this day. Can species coexist without one subjugating another? What does it mean to be truly great? What does it mean to be human? What makes us different from animals? Director Wes Ball and screenwriter Josh Friedman join the chorus of voices sharing their take in KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, a sequel of sorts to the reboot franchise that ended in 2017, with WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, starring Andy Serkis.

Hundreds of years have passed since the death of Caesar, the great military leader who helped lead the apes to victory but also preached a gospel of peace towards humans. Part of a peaceful clan of apes who bond with eagles, best friends Noa (Owen Teague), Anaya (Travis Jeffery), and Soona (Lydia Peckham) search for eaglet eggs for their coming-of-age ceremony. The Eagle clan also holds to an oath of separation from the humans that live past the tunnel, whom they call Echo. Noa has an encounter with an Echo that leaves him confused and full of questions, but his father (Neil Sandilands) encourages him to forget about that subject and leave the humans in the past. Unfortunately for Noa, a nighttime excursion brings him and his village to the attention of the militant Sylka (Eka Darville), who burns the clan, murders Noa's father, and takes the survivors prisoner in the name of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand).

An angry ape prepares to charge
Eka Darville as SYLVA
Left for dead and unsure where to go, Noa sets out to reclaim his clan and avenge his father's death. In the Echo named Mae (Freya Allan), he finds a reluctant companion for his journey and an ally for his quest. Mae has her own business with Proximus and proves to be a formidable resource in her own right. He also connects with Raka (Peter Macon), an orangutan who does his best to honor the teachings of Caesar by studying the words he wrote. Raka becomes a mentor to Noa and encourages him to question everything he believes about Caesar and humans.

Wes Ball has created a film that manages to be part of the franchise yet also feels markedly unique. While most  PLANET OF THE APES films closely align with the science fiction genre, the story beats in KINGDOM feel more similar to a fantasy adventure. A youth leaves home and must question everything he believes, encountering unfathomable dangers along the way. The unlikely hero must adapt and get stronger or die trying. Noa is Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and Willow Ufgood all rolled into one. While Noa defies categorization as a chosen one, he unwittingly becomes the hero by default since the rest of his people end up dead or in prison. Sun the eagle follows him, as well as Mae the human. They have nowhere else to go. Noa draws the outcast and the lost. You might call it a misfit's journey. His curiosity about the outside world gives him a drive that others in his clan lack.

Two apes touch foreheads
[L-R] Lydia Peckham as SOONA, Owen Teague as NOA
The story also includes an intriguing twist due to the time that has passed since the time of Caesar. In all previous films in the franchise, the war between the apes and humans is either impending or ongoing. In KINGDOM, such tumultuous times seem like distant memories. Caesar now exists as an idea more than a person. The apes in this time now twist his message to suit their personal purposes. Some, like Raka, study his words and try to honor his memory. Others claim to fight in his name but preach a gospel of conquest. The apes treat Caesar like a Christ figure, encouraging viewers to wrestle with themes of religion being a powerful tool for manipulation and control. The apes appear to have won the war between apes and humans. So now ape wars against ape. With all of these different views of Caesar, a war of ideas begins and leads to power struggles – with some being seen as inferior to others.

A woman hides in the grass
Freya Allan as MAE
Ball and Friedman also create a nice bit of ape mythology and world-building with the Eagle clan. Their group has a oneness with another animal group that shows respect to other creatures in nature. They choose a cooperative path. This contrasts sharply with Proximus Caesar and his acolytes, who seek ape domination. The Eagles definitely added a much needed bit of intrigue to the story, as Noa seeks to find his place by connecting to the legacy of his people.

The performances of the ape characters help viewers forget that they are looking at digitally altered humans. I thought I was looking at real apes at first, with human voices dubbed over the performances. Ball uses the same motion capture/performance capture technology that James Cameron did in the AVATAR films. Owen Teague earns the role of main character with his slightly hunched posture. For much of the film, Noa feels uncertain of himself, and Teague channels that in his body language. Peter Macon as Raka adds a much-needed burst of wisdom and humor during his brief segment on screen. As the film's main antagonist, Kevin Durand delivers just the right combination of intelligence and self-delusion to make his character feel off balance and threatening. He's someone you don't want to cross. The creature design mixed with motion capture technology truly allows viewers to feel the emotional journey of each character, no matter how minor.

A group of apes on horseback
Production designer Daniel T. Dorrance crafts the post-apocalyptic world for the film, with skyscrapers covered in vines, rust, and urban decay. The world of KINGDOM feels neglected yet somehow lush. The beauty of abandoned buildings evokes a feeling of awe about nature and a sense of wonder about the world that once was.

The plot contains captivating action sequences. Even with all of these strong building blocks, though, KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES doesn't stand out as a special viewing experience. This self-contained story introduces some new characters and ideas, but none of them are fleshed out enough to gain momentum. The directors may want to see if they can re-invigorate interest in the franchise enough to finance new films. But this feels like a lead-up to something else more than a fully realized story that will become a fan favorite.

Release info: In theaters May 10, 2024

Final score: 3 out of 5