Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) PG-13

It's hard to believe that it's been ten years since Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (starring Mark Wahlberg) hit the big screen. While that film got mixed reviews, which is certainly understandable, I enjoyed it and it cleaned up at the box office. A lot of people were quite skeptical when first trailers for this reboot were released. It appeared to be way too CGI-driven and cheesy. While this film obviously relies heavily on CGI, it's anything but cheesy.

Having now seen all seven Planet of the Apes films, I must say that this one ranks among the best. If not the very best. This time around, inexperienced director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) is at the helm and boy does he knock this opportunity out of the park. Rise stars James Franco (127 Hours, Pineapple Express), who's fresh off his Oscar-nominated brilliant performance in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours. Franco, to be honest, isn't all that spectacular in this film but he doesn't have to be. The real star of this film is Franco's pet chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis).

Franco plays Will Rodman, a young budding scientist who works at a world renowned pharmaceutical company. Will has been trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's for some time now. His test subjects are chimpanzees. He believes he's on the brink of a major breakthrough when one of his test subjects goes off crazier than usual. The ape breaks out of her cage and reeks havoc all over the compound. She's finally caught after thousands of dollars of damage is done. She is later put down and the entire project is shut down. Every last damn dirty ape is euthanized in cold blood. Will is heartbroken. He must now continue his research from home.

However, one ape wasn't killed. The chimp that went bananas at the research facility conceived a child. Will decides to take the cute little critter home with him as a pet. Will has his father, Charles (John Lithgow), meet the little bugger. Charles is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, which is the main reason Will is so focused on finding a cure. Charles adores the little chimp and names him Caesar. The name sticks and the three bond. What Will doesn't realize yet is that Caesar inherited all the best parts of his extremely intelligent chimp mother.

Three years go by, and Will doesn't age a bit (one of my few grievances with the film). Caesar is obviously much bigger now and he actually has his own room in the attic. He scampers around the house at an alarming pace. When Will and Charles aren't home he will often steal a cookie or two from the cookie jar and fantasize about playing with the neighbors daughter. After Caesar sneaks out of the house and puts the neighborhood into a frenzy, Will decides he needs to give him more space. So, he starts to bring Caesar to the nearby redwood forest. However, Caesar is getting smarter and smarter, day by day. He's also getting stronger and taller.

When Charles' dementia hits an all-time low Will takes drastic measures. He gives Charles the same serum that he gave Caesar's mother, but this time it's a little more advanced (all the kinks worked out). It completely cures Charles, and actually enhances his senses and intelligence. Will takes this information to his former boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo). Jacobs believes this new discovery will help bring in the big bucks, which is all he is worried about; money. Things seem to be going fantastic. Will meets a beautiful young devotchka named Caroline (Freida Pinto). His father is doing better than ever. And Caesar is getting extremely smart. Perhaps a bit too smart?

When Charles' dementia returns months later things begin to crumble. A confused Charles attempts to drive his neighbors car and crashes it. The enraged neighbor pulls Charles out of the car and threatens to give him the beating of a lifetime, but Caesar flies out of nowhere to protect Charles. Caesar takes things a bit too far after he bites off one of the mans fingers. Caesar is now forced to spend the rest of his days in a "primate sanctuary," where chimps like himself are locked away and only given a hours of play time each day. Will and Caesar are torn apart for the first time. Caesar thinks that somehow Will is in on the imprisonment. The facility is run by John Landon (Brian Cox), who comes off as a bit of a creep. His son Dodge (Tom Felton) does most of the dirty work, but he ultimately abuses the chimps for his own amusement. A real swell family if you ask me.

From this point on there isn't a ton of dialogue, and Franco is rarely on the screen. It's all Caesar, and this is when the film really flourishes. That's not to say the first act of the film isn't enjoyable, because it certainly is. Caesar struggles to find common ground with these primates who lack intelligence. As the days go by he must decide whether he's going to just sit back and wait for Will to come back and save him, or try and find a way out by any means possible. I don't want to ruin too much more for you, so I will leave it at that.

The direction by Rupert Wyatt is superb which is certain to surprise many. The CGI team really outdid themselves this time around. This is easily some of the best use of CGI to date. Caesar becomes as real to us as any of the main characters. It was a pleasant surprise to see old man river John Lithgow (Twilight Zone: The Movie, Harry and the Hendersons) back on the silver screen. He's no stranger to having to act alongside a hairy creature. Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy, The Ring) is terrific as usual; he's one of the best supporting actors alive. You Harry Potter geeks will enjoy seeing another side of Tom Felton. His acting skills lack quite a bit, but I have to say I took pleasure in seeing where he ended up towards the end of the film.

David Oyelowo (The Last King of Scotland, Derailed) played the greedy, cocky CEO to perfection. We get a small taste of Tyler Labine (A Good Old Fashioned Orgy), who I'm told is an up-and-coming comedic actor. Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, Miral) is okay, but there isn't a whole lot needed from her but to just stand there and look pretty. There's a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding Andy Serkis' (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, King Kong) portrayal of Caesar, which I find almost comical but he's certainly fantastic in his own way.

This film is very family friendly, other than some violence and a blood splatter here and there. Fans of the original Planet of the Apes films should be quite satisfied and intrigued as to where this rebooted franchise could lead. It's easily one of the best ten films of 2011 thus far, which I realize isn't saying a whole lot considering how awful this year has been, but I'm still highly recommending this film to anyone over the age of 9.
B+

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