Something kind of remarkable happened over this past weekend: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' starring James Franco, grossed a very impressive $54 million at the box-office. It's not surprising in terms of the film's quality – it's very good! – but when's the last time a summer studio film succeeded when the studio made such a concerted effort to distance itself from the film's star -- and vice versa? O.K., perhaps "distance" is too strong of a word, but apparently Fox heeded James Franco's own warning. Franco told Playboy, "Critics will be out to kill this movie and blame me for it just because they are out to kill me." As it turns out, that didn't happen; but it was apparent from the trailers to the (mostly) Franco-less movie posters and his limited press that Franco's role in the marketing of the film was diminished -- with the focus being put on the apes themselves. Shockingly, this worked.
It's kind of unusual, actually, that 'Apes' is the success that it turned out to be. Consider: First, it's a 'Planet of the Apes' movie; I'm in my 30s and I wasn't alive the last time a true 'Planet of the Apes' movie was released. And, yes, we've been down this road when Tim Burton tried to reboot the franchise in 2001 -- resulting in a movie that absolutely nobody likes. Oh, and not to mention: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' had a pre-buzz rotten stench emitting from its seemingly lifeless corpse. Don't believe me? James Franco sure thought so.
"They haven't shown me the movie yet," Franco told Playboy, "so I don't know what the result is. I did reshoots, and it sounds to me the final movie will be different from the screenplay, which had a lot of character development. The movie seems to be more action now." Not exactly a ringing endorsement from the star of your hopeful summer blockbuster. He wasn't done, "I never thought of this movie as an example of my creativity. I was an actor for hire. But people still have it out for me, so they're going to go after the movie."
Yes, months before it was released, the star of a would-be summer blockbuster was basically saying, "People will hate this movie. You will blame me, but please don't." To be fair to Franco, the early footage from 'Apes' did look fairly awful. But it's interesting to see an actor brace himself for a shellacking that never materialized. Instead of panning it, critics are throwing around the word "Oscar" -- but not for Franco.
"Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar!" Legions of movie bloggers are already making their case – and they make a strong case. Franco was wrong that critics would be out to kill him for this film. It seems, instead, they're just kind of ignoring him. He was serviceable. The real star, meanwhile, was Andy Serkis, who provided the motion-capture body movements for the animated ape Caesar. 'Apes' really is Serkis' film, even if, technically, he never even appears. It will be interesting to watch if the current Oscar buzz will last into actual Oscar season: topics that are fun to discuss in the doldrums of August sometimes seem to get lost by December.
Regardless -- no matter Serkis' Oscar chances -- the success of 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' will remain a strange cultural oddity. A summer film that no one was asking for: reviving a 40-year-old franchise while the studio and star participated in a strange dance to determine who could distance themselves more from the other. Yet, against all odds, fueled by positive reviews, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is the unlikely critical and financial hit of the summer. Hey, James Franco, it's safe to come out of hiding: Everyone liked your movie! ('Your Highness,' now that's another story.)
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