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Somehow legitimized over the years by a goofy-but-proud cult following, 1968’s Planet of the Apes may indeed be a seminal sci-fi flick, but let’s be honest here: It’s a really lousy flick, too. Charlton “Bright Eyes” Heston’s damn-you-all-to-hell acting chops leave you longing for the understated grace of William Shatner, the primatizing makeup—a big-screen breakthrough way back when—makes most of the rubbery monkeys resemble simian versions of Annette Funicello, and the knuckle-dragging pace, especially during those turgid courtroom scenes, thoroughly diminishes the campy fun. So when Tim Burton decided to “reimagine” Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel and its infamous cinematic offspring, the question was never whether the 42-year-old director could make a better film; the question was simply whether Hollywood’s reigning prince of darkness, whose personal works (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) have been smart and sweet but whose pricier projects (Batman Returns, Mars Attacks!) have been bloated and boring, could manage to make a good one.

Burton answers the blockbuster season’s $100 million question early and often. By poking devilish fun at the ham-fisted moralizing of the original (but paying homage to Heston & Co.’s cheesy achievements all the same) and by giving the ticket-buying masses a heaping helping of what they really want—lotsa brilliantly realized apes beating the hell out of meddling humans—Burton has finally brought to the multiplexes this summer’s first big-budget guilty pleasure. Die-hard fans of the thicket-coiffed director may be disappointed that his trademark damp-basement worldview has been replaced by the commercially driven desire to show people a good time. But they should take some solace in the fact that former Disney animator Burton has sought out Oscar-winning Sleepy Hollow production designer Rick Heinrichs to make sure the apes’ jungle metropolis and Martian-red military encampments look spectacular.

Perhaps Burton’s wisest move of all, however, was to never pretend that his human characters—including Leo Davidson, the astronaut who crash-lands his space pod in monkey hell (Mark Wahlberg, doing nothing more than looking hunky and fighting back), and the enslaved humans our gung-ho hero attempts to save (led by a raggedy Kris Kristofferson and a pretty-so-pretty Estella Warren)—are as watchable as his mesmerizing animal cast. (That’s yet another problem with the original: It took too long for the damn dirty apes to show up, and when they finally did start throwing those flimsy nets, they were all but overshadowed by Heston’s moaning about having no one to hold him.) Helena Bonham Carter, Paul Giamatti, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Tim Roth, who plays the film’s ferocious villain and spellbinding centerpiece, all agreed to don makeup wizard Rick Baker’s intricately designed prosthetics, and their considerable talents shine through all the sniffs, scratches, and Samsonite-swinging acrobatics.

As in the original, the plot here is relatively straightforward: Astronaut is marooned on a strange world, astronaut is caught by apes, astronaut escapes from apes, astronaut and his brethren fight apes. Just about as beautiful as an Englishwoman dressed as a chimpanzee can be, Carter plays Ari, a sad-eyed human-rights activist who helps the nonapes escape the simian city into the Forbidden Zone. Ari and her decidedly less hirsute pals are reluctantly aided by Limbo (Giamatti), a human-peddling orangutan and the bearer of the film’s best one-liners, most notably his warning about the perils of human teenagers. Hot on their heels—or paws or whatever the case may be—are the ape army’s silverback captain, Attar (Duncan), and the fascistic leader of the land, Thade (Roth). That Thade both despises humans and is smitten with the aloof Ari only makes the head chimp that much surlier, and the frightening amount of rage Roth invests in his part is most evident not in his screeching howls or rib-cracking body blows but in the actor’s only features not buried in monkey stuff: his eyes.

Whereas the Summer of Love version took lugubrious pains to tell us how we should all just get along, Burton’s movie forgoes the yawny proselytizing and fills in the message gaps with visual gags galore and myriad well-crafted action sequences. After the humans are caught and paraded through town, Burton provides a slow pan through a bustling ape marketplace, providing so many eye-pleasing anthropomorphic twists—including a clever spoof on the old organ-grinder bit—that a repeat viewing is necessary to fully appreciate that one scene alone. Also played for laughs is a developing love triangle involving Ari, the astronaut, and Warren’s all-legs Daena. (Don’t think for a minute that the twisted Burton is afraid of a little interspecies smooching.) And just when the grand-finale battle between men and beasts starts to feel a little too epic, Burton provides the movie’s most over-the-top moment: a thundering, bare-knuckle brawl between two silverback gorillas.

Because they’re miserable creeps, several local critics have spoiled an uncredited cameo by an actor, who, as Thade’s dying father, spoofs not only his screen persona but his real-life gig, as well. It’s a good one—and admittedly easy to guess—but I’m certainly not going to reveal the surprise here. And yes, you’ve probably also heard that just like the wowza appearance of Lady Liberty in the original flick’s final frame, there’s a gratuitous twist here to keep you groaning through the credits—and wondering just how in the hell that whole space-time continuum thingy works, anyway. No matter: With so much crap littering the local movie cages this summer, Burton’s badass Apes, despite those annoying humans and that chunky denouement, is a swinging good time. CP