Producers: Wes Ball, Joe Hartwick, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Jason Reed   Director: Wes Ball    Screenplay: Josh Friedman, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Patrick Aison   Cast: Owen Teague, Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Peter Macon, William H. Macy, Travis Jeffery, Lydia Peckham, Neil Sandilands, Eka Darville, Ras-Samuel Weld A’abzgi and Dichen Lachman  Distributor: 20th Century Studios

Grade: B

When the prequel trilogy to the “Planet of the Apes” franchise directed by Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves ended with the latter’s “War for the Planet of the Apes” in 2017, it seemed a logical conclusion to the series, a final episode that naturally pointed either to the original 1968 movie, or to Tim Burton’s misguided 2001 reimagining, neither of which anyone with sense could want simply to remake.

But Hollywood being Hollywood, it was unimaginable that after “War” proved a financial success, the franchise could be allowed to die, or even go on a prolonged hiatus.  So in 2019 Disney, the parent under which 20th Century Studios now operated, handed over the reins to Wes Ball (director of the “Maze Runner” trilogy), who enlisted Josh Friedman to pen a screenplay that would be not a reboot but a continuation, taking things past the death of the enlightened chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis), which closes “War,” and hopefully becoming the start of another series (trilogy?) that would cover the gap between the demise of Caesar and the events of the first “Planet.”

The result is this film, which serves only half-heartedly as a stand-alone story and goes awry in its drive for an overblown yet meaningful finale, but succeeds as a technically impressive introduction to inevitable sequels—unless, of course, it stumbles badly at the boxoffice, in which case it would be a one-off with a cliffhanger left dangling.

The hero is Noa (Owen Teague), a young chimpanzee who, “many generations” after Caesar’s death, is among the members of a simian tribe living in a tall wooden tower in a verdant, mountainous wilderness.  He’s the son of Koro (Neil Sandilands), known as the Master of the Birds because of the group’s connection with the eagles that also populate the area.  In fact Noa and his pals Anaya (Travis Jeffery) and Soona (Lydia Peckham) are introduced climbing the craggy cliffs to purloin eggs from an eagle’s nest, which when hatched will cement the bond between the species. 

But outsiders threaten the clan’s idyllic life.  Noa spies a feral human woman (Freta Allan) in the woods during the outing, and when Koro sends out a scouting party to locate her, Noa follows them, only to find them wiped out by a party of helmeted gorilla horsemen led by the savage Sylva (Erik Darville).  They soon undertake an attack on the eagle clan itself, killing Koro and many others while carrying off some, including Anaya, Soona and Noa’s mother, as captives. 

Noa, now alone, ventures on a quest to find the captives and rescue them.  Along the way—through a heavily forested region in which the greenery has overrun remnants of the old human society (a large telescope in a ruined observatory particularly fascinates him)—he encounters another survivor of the rampaging horde, Raka (Peter Macon), a sage old orangutan who venerates the teachings of the legendary Caesar and accompanies Noa on his mission, intending to instruct him along the way.  They, in turn, befriend the woman Noa had earlier seen, who unlike others of her species—rendered primitive savages by the virus unleashed in the previous trilogy that spurred Caesar’s development—reveals herself as the intelligent, articulate Mae.  The three of them now resume the journey, only to encounter Sylva and his forces as they try to cross a bridge.  Noa and Mae survive but are captured, while Raka falls into the raging waters and is presumed killed (a real loss, since he was by far the most engaging character).

They are taken to the realm of the title, ruled by the vain, despotic Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a bonobo who styles himself as Caesar’s successor though his ambitions are far different.  (One of the wittier elements of the script, though insufficiently explored, is that he’s mimicking the apparatus of the Roman Empire, about which he’s been taught by a professorial human named Trevathan  played by William H. Macy, apparently a specialist in ancient human history who’s become his loyal servant in return for a reasonably comfortable sinecure.)  Proximus is willing to sacrifice anything—his own ape followers, other bonobos, and his chimp slaves, including Anaya and Soona—to open a gigantic vault that he believes houses human learning and technology that can help him prevail over any rivals and jump-start simian evolution.

Up to this point the editing by Dan Zimmerman and Dirk Westervelt has fluctuated between stately and solemn in the more reflective moments, and wildly energetic in the action scenes.  It revs up into near-hysterical mode in the final act, which centers on a scrappy mission undertaken by Mae, Noa, Anaya and Soona to worm their way into the vault and derail Proximus’ plans.  (John Paesano’s capable score goes into overdrive here as well.)  It turns out, however, that one of the conspirators has a secret agenda, and the explosive result is a flood that threatens everyone.  That’s followed by a final confrontation, obligatory perhaps but also likely to strike many viewers as rather laughable, showing that Noa has proven himself worthy to assume his dead father’s leadership mantle in the tribe, and the revelation that Mae isn’t the only human who’s avoided the debilitating effect of the virus.  Further inter- and intra-species hostility seems inevitable; no doubt any future installments will depict it in detail.

So in narrative terms “Kingdom” is a tale of a young chimpanzee’s coming-of-age, and frankly the plot is just one lifted from innumerable revenge Westerns and placed in a new setting.  But it works well enough, largely because the visuals are so impressive.  The Australian locations are captured beautifully in Gyula Pados’ widescreen cinematography, and Daniel T. Dorrance’s production design, along with Mayes C. Rubeo’s costumes, create a properly dystopian ambience   And while the CGI effects supervised by Erik Winquist can get a bit messy in long shots, especially in the big finale (where the editing, too, fails to keep the topography ideally clear), the motion-capture work is masterful, allowing both Teague and Macon to give sensitive, soulful performances (and Duran and Darville ruthless ones) in their computer-generated simian garb.  (The advice of the old master Serkis, who served as a special consultant, must have been invaluable).  Among the humans, Macy could have been better employed—his role seems to have been attenuated in the cutting room—but Allan does a nice job conveying the nuances of a character who becomes more complex as the tale unfolds.

Overall the “Planet of the Apes” reboot that began more than a decade ago has proven a remarkably durable enterprise, and this installment, despite some last-act stumbles, is a solid expansion of it.