I saw War for the Planet of the Apes recently. It was one of the few times I’ve ever gone to see a movie in a series with almost zero context for what else happens in said series. I mean, I knew it was about apes and humans… fighting a war? But that was about it. Fortunately the movie filled me in on just about every important event in the series, so that was good. And besides that, it was… a fine movie. It had its share of plot holes and annoying moments, but no more so than any other blockbuster I’ve seen this year. The one thing that set it apart from other same-universe franchise films released in recent years is that it reminded me of the Redwall series.
Redwall is a series of books written by Brian Jacques. It consists of twenty-two books, none of which were directly related to each other but all took place in the same universe. The first book is also named Redwall. The books are fantasy epics often compared to Tolkien and Lewis, with the added kid-friendly approach of all of the characters being talking, anthropomorphic animals. These animals have fun, exciting adventures that take them all over their quasi-medieval world. The Redwall books were a staple of my childhood, and like most of the other books I read as a kid, they were at times incredibly dark. Pretty much every villain was some kind of ravenously evil warlord bent on destroying and subjugating the peaceful woodland folk–and the villain usually had some measure of success before it was all over. Characters were frequently killed, tortured, or enslaved, and every so often you’d run across a really freaky or grotesque monster-slash-character. Even so, the books always ended with the good guys triumphing, mourning their fallen comrades, and returning to a peaceful and prosperous life. They were formulaic at times, but the Redwall books also had a rather comforting view of morality, where the good and bad guys were easy to identify and the good guys always won out in the end. That view of things, along with many humorous moments and characters, tended to balance out the darker content.
I suppose it’s that mostly black-and-white morality, coupled with similar story beats, that makes me think War for the Planet of the Apes and Redwall are more similar than they appear. There are certain scenes in War that could’ve been ripped almost whole cloth from a Redwall book, as could the overall storyline, of a few courageous characters fighting to save their entire community from an insatiable warlord.
Part of the genius of War for the Planet of the Apes is that it takes what seems like a really weird and possibly silly premise–humans and intelligent apes fighting for control of the world–and infuses it with deep themes and imagery that make the story much more profound than you might think going in. Alissa Wilkinson, a writer for Vox, pointed out how it uses Biblical undertones; I would argue that it also pulls from the language of fantasy epics, what with its overarching journey narrative and the villain being a military leader intent on controlling the story’s world. It’s those storylines and themes, borrowed from traditionally meaningful genres, that give War for the Planet of the Apes some real depth. It’s a franchise blockbuster with its share of plot holes, but it’s also an apocalyptic film that may leave viewers thinking about it for a while afterward. That’s the effect it had on me. It also made me want to re-read some of my favorite childhood novels, and think about why we tell these stories about people who aren’t human.