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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Planet of the Apes' franchise is back and (almost) better than ever

Photo by WETA Digital

Photo by WETA Digital

In the wake of a brilliant first installment, a worthy follow-up, three additional horrible sequels, two TV series and a thoroughly muddled reboot, the "Planet of the Apes" franchise is back and (almost) better than ever.

Like Fox studio's other summer prequel ("X-Men: First Class"), "Rise" is an origin movie that both pays homage to and eschews its predecessors. It also pulls off the semi-amazing feat of being understandable and entertaining for those who grew up with the earlier films and newcomers to the franchise who have no idea what it's about.

At the time of the first "Apes" movie (1968), there was no such thing as CGI and the movie offered little in the way of special effects. What made it so memorable -- aside from the great story -- was the Oscar-winning make-up designed by John Chambers. Each branch of the ape population (gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees) had a distinct, indelible and unforgettable look. The make-up made that movie.

Not surprisingly, there's little to no make-up in this new film, but there is a whole lot of CGI, just not the kind we're used to seeing. The CGI here is applied in much the same manner an animator would fill in a penciled cell. The apes come to life when the CGI is meticulously crafted over top of live-action motion-capture images.

By far the most talented motion-capture performer alive is Andy Serkis. You probably don't know his face but you certainly know his previous work. He was Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and played the title character in the recent "King Kong" remake.

Serkis stars as Caesar, the son of a laboratory chimp whose mother is given a test drug that could be the cure for Alzheimer's disease. The drug's creator Will Rodman (James Franco) has personal, non-financial reasons for getting the drug to market, but after a demonstration of the drug's effectiveness in front of the company's board of directors gets terribly sidetracked, the funding for all future development and fine-tuning gets yanked.

Initially reticent, Will removes the baby Caesar from the lab and effectively adopts him. Over a span of about a decade, Caesar's mental development far eclipses that of most humans of a similar age, but alongside that intellect are the primal emotions and survival instincts of a wild animal. Without malice or forethought, Caesar makes the same type of mistake his mother did years earlier and he is taken away from Will.

In real world terms what happens next is utterly ludicrous, but in the context of sci-fi and alongside the rest of "Planet of the Apes" canon, it makes complete sense and is conducted brilliantly. Director Rupert Wyatt handles the touchy transition from first half drama into second half action with a deft touch.

For their part, co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver steadfastly avoid the camp that often crept into some of the other "Apes" movies and permeate their script with what could best be described as overflowing humanity. What's most impressive is that most of the "humanity" is practiced by the ape characters.

As with the first installment, "Rise" is rich in social/cultural subtext and political commentary but never in an overt or jackhammer sort of way. This is a thoughtful finesse drama posing as a summer popcorn action flick and thus should appeal to almost every adult on some level.

The movie concludes with the distinct suggestion of a sequel which in this case would be totally justified and more than welcomed -- as long as it's just one sequel. The time in-between the ending here and the start of the first is considerable and how a follow-up would possibly connect points A and B are limitless. If Fox doesn't rush it or dumb it down, and the three filmmakers are allowed to continue what they've done here, the results could be utterly amazing. (Fox)