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Front Page - Friday, July 21, 2017

Critic's Corner: Newest ‘Apes’ defies misguided hype

The promotional poster for “War for the Planet of the Apes” shows a massive ape army advancing toward a small squad of well-armed human soldiers. It suggests that the simians outnumber the humans by a thousand to one but that the odds are evened out by the weaponry.

That scene is not in the movie. Rather, it’s a clever piece of marketing designed to mislead people into thinking the third “Ape” film is something other than what it is. While a few battles do bookend the film, nothing on the scale of “Lord of the Rings” takes place.

On the contrary, if the film’s name accurately described the magnitude of the military engagements that take place, it would be titled “Skirmish for the Planet of the Apes.” I doubt that would sell as many tickets, though.

That said, the word “war” does belong in the title. I can’t tell you why without spoiling the movie, so if you’re curious, see it for yourself.

I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I wasn’t, although I was bored for long stretches of the film.

Perhaps that had more to do with me than the movie.

The script, which is credited to Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback, gradually develops its characters and carefully weaves the ties between them. It also doesn’t rush into battle but slowly puts together the small pieces that lead to the big-ish showdown.

It’s a brave approach for a summer blockbuster. But by focusing on the characters, Reeves, who also directed, and Bomback made a war film in which the personal tragedies are more devastating than the explosions.

In the same manner, the film’s heartwarming exchanges are more satisfying than the victories on the battlefield. There are many of these, including a touching scene in which an ape picks a flower and places it in a young girl’s hair.

The music works harder than it needs to during this sequence, with the swelling of strings threatening to give the moment a sickeningly sweet saccharine flavor, but I liked that Reeves and Bomback were mindful enough to show what was really at stake in the conflict.

I just wish “War” had a brisker pace. It opens with a human battalion closing in on an ape stronghold in the woods. Before long, dozens of monkeys and humans are dead, but neither side is closer to victory.

I expected “War” to follow the surviving humans back to their base, where a megalomaniacal colonel played by Woody Harrelson leads his men and women in the fight against the apes, but it doesn’t. Instead, it stays with Caesar, the central character of the series, who sends a half-dozen men back to the colonel as a living message: give the apes the woods and there will be peace.

For those who didn’t see the second film, Caesar didn’t start the war, he reluctantly took over its reins to save his kind. The unexpected switch to the apes’ point of view persists for the rest of the movie. While the journey does lead to a satisfying conclusion, it is a long, slow one that could have been shortened by a few scenes and some judicious editing.

One thing that helps to pass the time is the quality of the animation. If there was any hint of fabrication in the second film, it’s been erased. Using actors to record motion-capture performances and then replacing the humans with apes via computer rendering, “War” features what could be the most lifelike animation in the history of film.

Even more extraordinary is the degree of emotion expressed through the apes during the movie’s most intense scenes. Actor Andy Serkis, who performed as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and has been Caesar’s heart and soul for this series, delivered a dramatic performance worthy of Shakespeare.

Because of this and the outstanding technical work done to bring the apes to life, the best parts of “War” are those that stand in contrast to the poster – those with a single ape expressing anger, agony or the struggle to hold on to that which is good and merciful.

In the end, I recommend “War,” even though I struggled with its languid place. It offers a well-told story that brings the “Apes” trilogy to a satisfying conclusion and, in its most intimate moments, it is a true visual marvel.

3 stars out of 4