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‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is surprisingly emotional

It turns out you really can get audiences excited about seeing an acclaimed movie that deals with moral complexity, war crimes and how many monstrous acts someone would commit against his friends simply to survive.

You can even do it in the heat of summer.

You just have to make sure that most of the characters are monkeys.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” takes place 15 years after the outbreak of the Simian Flu that decimated the human population. What’s left of the military has launched an all-out assault on the woods north of San Francisco, where Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ever-evolving band of primates have sought refuge.

With slogans like “Monkey Killer” and “Bedtime for Bonzo” scrawled on the backs of their helmets, the soldiers take out a handful of the apes before being overrun. But Caesar, who just wants to be left alone and only continues fighting to protect his fellow apes, releases four of the insurgents with a message for their Colonel (Woody Harrelson): “Leave us the woods, and the killing can stop.”

But when the Colonel responds to that kindness with an attack that results in an unimaginable loss for Caesar, it’s a line that can’t be uncrossed, and the once-docile chimp spends the rest of the movie fighting to regain the humanity he’s learned and against his baser instincts for revenge.

Sending the rest of the apes to safety, Caesar sets out with his trusted ally Rocket (“Mystere” alum Terry Notary), orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) to destroy the Colonel and any members of his army that get in the way.

During their journey, they come across a mute girl who comes to be called Nova (Amiah Miller) and is essentially adopted by Maurice. But their greatest discovery is an awkward, Gollum-looking little chimp known as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), because that’s all he ever was called in the zoo where he lived until humans started getting sick and began slaughtering his fellow inmates. He’s been alone ever since. Terrified of leaving the safety of the cave he calls home, trying to get the posse to retreat at every turn and wearing a tiny ski vest for warmth, Bad Ape is guaranteed to break your heart.

If you’re looking for the truly bad apes, though, they’re the ones referred to as Donkeys. These ape collaborators are either loyal to Koba, Caesar’s militaristic rival who was killed off in 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” or just hoping to save their own hides by working with the humans. Whether it’s serving as pack animals, sources of intelligence or willing participants in the beating and starving of the apes the Colonel has rounded up in a prison labor camp, there isn’t much the Donkeys won’t do to survive.

In the hands of director Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), who co-wrote the script with Mark Bomback (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), the prequel breaks the curse of “the third one is always the worst.” Beautiful yet bleak, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is the most accomplished film in the series. It’s surprisingly emotional and truly something to behold.

As the Colonel, Harrelson is all coiled intensity. He refers to the increasingly horrific military action as a “holy war” and surely would be in line to be tried at The Hague — assuming it hasn’t already been overrun by apes.

Serkis continues to amaze as Caesar. Call me a simpleton, but after about 10 minutes, it’s easy to forget you’re not watching real apes but actors wearing motion-capture suits, whose performances are then covered in fur by computer animators.

Much like FX’s stellar “The Americans,” which asks viewers to root for 1980s-era Russian spies who are determined to bring down our government, there’s more than a little conflict over cheering against the humans. The filmmakers, though, make things easier by ensuring there are exactly zero sympathetic humans aside from the very young Nova.

Even if you’re somehow still on the fence, by the time the stunning “War for the Planet of the Apes” turns into a variation on “The Great Esc-Ape,” you’ll be beating your chest with excitement and joy.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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