‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ could have elected to go the straightforward route in leveling the seesaw battle of dominance between highly evolved apes and humans that have switched places in the hierarchy of society. But Wes Ball’s installment, which takes place 300 years after 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes, exquisitely and smartly operates in grey. Within the center of Josh Friedman’s story is the overarching meaning of legacy and how it can be interpreted through generations. ‘Kingdom’s opening moments chronicle the funeral service of the original trilogy’s overarching protagonist, Caesar. On the back of Caesar’s sacrifice, a monumental shift happens as apes take over as the dominant species, and humans retreat due to their “own hubris” after a virus sped up the shift. 

Plants and foliage have taken over this new world, framed by buildings and relics of a long-forgotten time. As time passes, the interpretation of Caesar’s life and what he stood for warps with every generation that comes after him. The simple rallying cry of “Apes. Together. Strong.” could stand for something different if interpreted by someone or a group bent on total domination. ‘Kingdom’ deals with that by displaying a delicate balance between uneasy alliances and deeds carried out in the name of messages distilled by one ruler. Caesar believed that apes should be able to be free from captivity, but there was also his side of compassion to think that maybe humans and apes can co-exist. It’s a smart jumping-off point for Ball to jump from and the engine that drives this next installment. 

(L-R): Noa (played by Owen Teague) and Koro (played by Neil Sandilands) in 20th Century Studios’ KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The film doesn’t introduce just one singular protagonist right off the bat, but three: Noa (Teague), Soona (Lydia Peckham), and Anaya (Travis Jeffery), who reside within the Eagle Tribe. Upon first meeting them, they search for eagle eggs because this ape tribe works in concert with the bird. They nurture the eggs until they hatch and build relationships as the Eagles help the apes navigate and hunt for food. To show there’s still a natural order to things, when Noa, Soona, and Anaya come across a nest, they agree to let one egg remain. It’s an unspoken establishment of harmony that seems to exist in this world, like the stories of Caesar. Soon after, Noa’s world, in particular, turns upside down. For starters, a young human lady (or echo as they call them) is stealing blankets and food from their horses and encampment. One night, Noa discovers a bunch of stained apes on a road path with the handy work of Proximus Caesar’s (Kevin Durand) tribe. They don’t only stop there; they also destroy Eagle Tribe’s territory, take Noa’s friend and mother hostage, and kill his father, Koro (Neil Sandilands). Noa begins a search and rescue mission, a classic hero’s journey. On the way, he also starts to unpack what he’s been told about Caesar and what he stood for. 

Freya Allan as Nova in 20th Century Studios’ KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

If the pillar is that apes are strong as a unit, then why did one implore his troops to destroy those like him? It’s because the tyrannical bonobo has completely twisted what Caesar stood for in pursuit of the next stage in evolution. In the beautiful landscape of the world Ball has constructed, there seems to be a ceiling that the apes have hit. Proxima Caesar’s loyal human compatriot Trevathan (William H. Macy) tells him about the extensiveness of human history. However, the key is behind the massive vault that Proxima Caesar has no qualms about enslaving other apes to open. At first, it’s unclear what’s behind the steel doors, but it’s believed there is a key to the following steps to which the apes will progress their kingdom. It’s there where the film establishes a race against the time of this discovery and heightens the tension of what could happen if it were to fall into the wrong hands. 

The fantastic motion capture special effects continue to be impressive in this next installment. Mannerisms, realistic facial contortions of the apes, and voicework make you invested in these new characters. Along Noa’s travels, he meets an orangutan named Raka (Peter Macon), a throwback to somebody who witnessed the rise and death of Caesar and can attest to what he personified. Their meeting comes in concert with Raka gently imploring Noa to let his guard down with their eventual human companion, Mae (Freya Allan). They have a common goal: to stop Promixa Caesar from gaining the vault’s contents. Despite that, ‘Kingdom’ still presents an uneasiness to this alliance as you question if humans and apes can trust one another. It’s a well-thought-out lingering question in critical scenarios that presumably carry this story in future installments.

Regarding pacing, ‘Kingdom’ also does admirably, providing moments of expositional dialogue and realizations with all-out bouts of action and fights. With saying that, it could have been a bit more concise in doing so, cutting down from a nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime overall. The franchise goes on without its main anchor, but the visual flair and the ghost of its triumphant protagonist of the original trilogy still have some story to tell.