Smart monkeys, dumb humans

The world needs another Planet of the Apes movie like a circus acrobat needs a banana peel.

Caesar the chimp

Caesar the chimp

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Three stars out of four

Rated: PG

The world needs another Planet of the Apes movie like a circus acrobat needs a banana peel.

After five original films, two TV spinoffs and Tim Burton’s misbegotten 2001 “reimagining,” the franchise has fleas.

Yet Rise of the Planet of the Apes defies expectations (and fears), and two words explain why: Andy Serkis.

The British magician behind the digital sorcery of Gollum and King Kong gives his finest performance yet as Caesar, the brainy chimp who leads a primate revolution against enslaving humans.

Serkis commands the screen, combining his malleable features with the motion-capture technology he excels at. His Caesar conveys more intelligence and emotion than any of the human characters. He’s the reason for seeing the movie, even if you’re not ape-obsessed.

Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is both a reboot of the franchise and the origin story that the 1968 progenitor lacked (although 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes provided one, as well as an ape rebel named Caesar).

Director Wyatt’s version, scripted by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who previously teamed for The Relic), pays tribute to the original series without being bound by it. The central idea of smart monkeys versus dumb humans remains.

Sleepy-eyed James Franco is one of those dopey homo sapiens. As San Francisco disease researcher Will Rodman, he may be good with test tubes but he’s no rocket scientist.

He believes he’s close to discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but his powers of observation and his medical ethics are dodgy. Things that might be obvious, such as not treating a wild animal as human (he’s clearly not seen Project Nim) and not injecting people with potentially dangerous (and stolen) drugs, don’t seem to occur him.

He does have a strong personal motive: His father (John Lithgow) is swiftly fading from Alzheimer’s, and that unpredictable brain serum — which affects humans and apes differently — represents the last hope to stave off mental oblivion.

Rodman and his eye-candy girlfriend (Freida Pinto) take surreptitious custody of Caesar, the progeny of a prodded primate, after a chimp experiment goes disastrously awry at their for-profit research company. Caesar moves into their home, turning an attic room into a jungle gym.

It comes as a surprise to Rodman, although it shouldn’t, that Caesar has inherited the chemically induced high IQ of his mother. The chimp gets even smarter as he gets bigger, and also more aggressive, but Rodman doesn’t acknowledge the danger of such close contact.

Rodman is no wiser about people: “You know everything about the human brain except how it works,” his boss snaps at him.

A neighbourhood incident forces Rodman to put Caesar into protective custody, in an ape sanctuary run by a supposed animal lover and his son (Brian Cox and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton).

The sanctuary turns out to be more like Alcatraz, but Caesar is smarter than people give him credit for. So are his fellow apes, when more of the brain serum suddenly becomes available.

The many nods to the original Planet of the Apes franchise are smart and also indicative of grand plans to make this much more than just a one-off. For example, we see the liftoff of the spaceship Icarus that figured in the opening moments of the first film, which starred Charlton Heston as the human who gets too wise too late.

That story’s object lesson about how slavery is all in the eye of the beholder doesn’t resonate as strongly as it did in the 1960s, but this is no accident.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is designed as an action picture, not a message one, and the action frequently succeeds. A confrontation between apes and humans on the Golden Gate Bridge is good enough to make you overlook the men (or apes) pulling the strings behind the CGI curtain.

But Serkis’s Caesar needs no qualifiers. It really helps this movie to have a central character played by a guy who isn’t the least bit constrained by the motion-capture gear needed to create the magic. We never see the man inside the monkey.

To be fair to Franco and Pinto, their flat affect can probably be blamed on the difficulties of acting in the artificial realm of motion-capture. It’s hard to interact with green screens and blinking lights.

Advantage to the apes, but they have Andy Serkis on their team — and so should Oscar, when the season of gold arrives.

Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.