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At this point in his career, Andy Serkis has to be wondering if anyone will remember that he was once good at playing people. Sure he gets cast as a normal man now and then, but it's unlikely any of those roles are going to be as memorable as his turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, the titular monster gorilla in King Kong, or now Caesar, the genetically altered chimp in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. To say that Serkis steals the show would do him a disservice-he is the show, and thanks to him it's a show that ends the blockbuster season of 2011 on a decidedly high note.
Executives at Twentieth Century Fox were wise to hold this prequel to Planet of the Apes till August. Not only did they avoid competing with Harry Potter and a host of superheroes, but for audiences weary of mythically proportioned good versus evil stories, their man versus monkey plot feels refreshing by comparison.
In perhaps the least typecast role since Clint Eastwood sang show tunes in Paint Your Wagon, James Franco plays Will Rodman, a brilliant research scientist who discovers a potential cure for Alzheimer's. Will knows the drug works because he administers it to his own dementia-suffering father (John Lithgow). But when a misconstrued violent outburst from one of his test chimps shuts down his project, he's left with only one surviving subject still displaying the effects of the drug-baby chimp Caesar. Once Will smuggles Caesar home, he discovers that the animal's burgeoning intelligence requires not an owner, but a father.
As it develops from there, the film is heavy on action without, thanks to Serkis as Caesar, skimping on emotion. Together he and the team of CGI wizards create a three-dimensional, fully sympathetic character who carries the story even when it flirts with the ridiculous. With the mind of a child trapped in the body of an animal, Caesar is inherently pitiable. He becomes more so once he reaches adolescence and his aggressive instincts start to take over. Will is forced to deposit him at a primate sanctuary run by scoundrels of the Dickens school of villainy (make Nicholas Nickleby's schoolmaster Wackford Squeers an ape house manager and you have a perfect picture of Brian Cox's role) and inhabited by alpha-apes that would put a prison yard to shame. Yet much like its 1968 forbear, improbable as it all is, it works.
The biggest thing separating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (rated PG-13 for language and action violence) from the popcorn pack is that the fun carries through its entire running time (a feat even the dream team of Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams failed to pull off a couple of months ago). In a summer filled with ever more expensive, ever longer, and ever more tedious action sequences, when the final showdown between man and scientifically manipulated nature comes, it is riveting stuff. To be fair, it's hard to beat the awesomeness of a horde of screaming monkeys riding across the Golden Gate Bridge on horseback, but once we get to that point, we actually care about those monkeys and why they are on horseback.
Science fiction of this sort practically begs for a moral, but except for a mild "it's dangerous to monkey around playing God" theme, there's little here to provide a teaching moment. But since the film also avoids veering into Darwinist territory, perhaps that's OK. The kids have to go back to school soon enough, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes offers one last shot at some great summer fun.