Throughout the Planet of the Apes film franchise, makeup, and technology have impressed audiences. With Pierre Boulle’s novel serving as a reference point for a world ruled by apes and humanity being subjugated to a lower form, the rebooted film series that began in 2011 continues with Wes Ball’s (The Maze Runner trilogy) brilliant Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

Set many generations after 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes, Ball and writer Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds, The Black Dahlia) create a coming-of-age story that plays more like a soft reboot of the modern film series than a direct sequel to War for the Planet of the Apes; however, Ball and Friedman bridge the continuing rule of the apes in a thoughtful, if uneven way.

The character-driven story focuses on Noa, played by Owen Teague, a young chimpanzee who benefits from not knowing Caesar’s influence on the various simians that make up their kingdom. The clans have isolated themselves, and within that isolation, a feeling of tribalism emerges; one that the current Caesar, Proximus (Kevin Durand) wants to have under his vicious rule. Noa is forced to grow up faster than intended when Proximus’ army attacks Noa’s village.

Teague (It Chapter Two, You Hurt My Feelings) plays Noa with an aggressive tenderness, a mark of someone at peace with his home combined with a curiosity about the world and a respect for his peers and elders that draws him into reluctant action. He wears his heart on his sleeve, a fact that shines through Teague’s performance, Ball’s direction, and the motion-capture technology used to create his chimpanzee image on screen. As the story unfolds, the character’s benevolence, care, curiosity, and ultimately, Noa’s frustration with Proximus’ treatment of his clan can be felt.

Peter Macon’s Raka, an orangutan with wisdom and patience, joins Noa on the journey. Raka is a colorful and playful character, one who teaches Noa of Caesar’s efforts in the prior films and gives Mae a more familiar name, Nova. Noa is dubious of Raka’s teachings just as Luke was initially dubious of Yoda.

Durand’s Proximus carries Caesar’s laws subject to his interpretation, leading to the story’s crux. Although the performance is edgy and dangerous, the character motives aren’t as strong as prior antagonists in the current film series, leaving a potentially lackluster feeling. The fight sequences between Caesar and Noa are brilliantly shot by Gyula Pados, who worked with Ball on two Maze Runner films. Pados’ cinematography is best experienced on a big screen, as is John Paesano’s brilliant score, which subtly evokes themes from past films in the series.

An Apes story isn’t complete without the human element, though it mostly works against the story. One of the few humans to come into contact with Noa is Mae (Freya Allan). Her journey is not all it seems when her agenda becomes apparent, yet its power resonates with the story’s emotional punch. The introduction of Mae, along with several other moments within Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes recalls key elements from the original film series and the current series, a pleasant trove of easter eggs, character-wise and musically, for those who are familiar with them. It creates a generational connection inherently, bringing the idea that, through future entries in this reboot series, the modern entries will come full circle with the original film series. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is as much about the “now” as it is intuitively forward-thinking.

Ball creates a symbolic relationship between the two characters that heightens Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ emotional power with a story focused more on physical emotion than spoken emotion.

The focus on the physical elements does wonders for the ape characters but causes a list on the human characters’ portion of the story, which feels tedious in comparison to the apes’ side. Friedman has intent with the humans that inhabit the story, though the editing and pacing create lulls in the story as they are caught between Noa’s benevolence and Proximus’ viciousness. Still, these moments don’t dither.

Speaking of makeup and technology, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes strengthens its cause through a continued relationship with Weta FX, realizing the effective combination of real locations and motion capture with special effects techniques established in James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. By utilizing these techniques, Ball was able to effortlessly capture the human actors’ facial ticks with an unexpected realism.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ reliance on technology and technique is firmly its strength. It also leaves the story in a lurch, imbalanced between a strong protagonist with a familiar antagonist and an all-too-familiar human element. Its reliance on emotional characteristics, a strong point in favor of the film, might leave some desiring more of it, considering its pedigree. Still, the visuals coupled with Teague’s wonderfully emotional performance demand that it be seen on the biggest screen possible.