20th Century Fox

Let's be honest, this is a film about talking monkeys and that will always be ridiculous. Talking animals are usually the preserve of awful children's movies, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes miraculously manages to not just make it work but make it engaging.

There are times when you'll barely believe what you're seeing – a heartfelt scene between two CG apes, another on horseback toting two machine guns (awesome) – but while you may realise the inherent silliness of what's happening, the film does everything it can combat it, and does so successfully.

In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a shock success; much better than it really had any right to be. It was a prequel to the iconic Charlton Heston original which also rebooted the series, and its success hinged on a single performance - but I'll get to that later.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
(L-R) Keri Russell, Jason Clarke & Kodi Smit-McPhee20th Century Fox

Rise told the story of how apes became intelligent thanks to the side effects of what humans had hoped would be a cure for Alzheimer's, and how they broke away from humanity to start their own lives in the forests outside San Francisco.

Dawn begins there 10-15 years later. A simian flu has decimated a human population which then tore itself apart. Away from all this Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads an up-and-running ape colony. Inevitably their home life is disrupted by the arrival of humans in the nearby city, kick-starting a story about family, survival and deception.

Parallels between the ape and human characters are drawn instantly and throughout director Matt Reeves' picture. At no point does either side as a whole become the villain of the piece, but the focus on one particularly bad ape does tip the scale slightly their way.

On the human side Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee play a family thrown together by the horrors that have occurred since the first film. They are part of a group of human survivors led by Gary Oldman's conflicted Dreyfus, who himself has suffered greatly.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Toby Kebbell's Koba wants violence20th Century Fox

Clarke is quietly relatable as Malcolm, a man increasingly desperate for peace, but his family are largely there to serve the parallels being drawn between the apes – headed by Caesar and his family – and the humans with their own. It says a lot that Malcolm's wife and child are side-lined for the final action scene.

This new human cast is a huge improvement over that of the last film. Those who interact with the apes (or in reality the actors portraying the apes with motion capture) do so with a much better understanding of how it'll turn out than James Franco and Frida Pinto would have in Rise, and that's a clear benefit.

Joining Serkis in the skin-tight mo-cap suits are Toby Kebbell as Caesar's scarred friend Koba, Judy Greer as Caesar's wife Cornelia, Karin Konoval as orang-utan Maurice and Nick Thurston as Blue Eyes.

Serkis is wonderful as the lead of course, but it's Kebbell who steals the show as Koba – the tormented ape experimented on in the original film's labs. Understandably less trusting of the humans, Kebbell's scenes are uniformly superb, and thoroughly terrifying.

The special effects are absolutely staggering too, with WETA digital attaining a level of detail and realism not seen since James Cameron's Avatar. This was a must considering how much of the film is dependent on the apes, but they have duly delivered, building upon the stellar work of the original.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Caesar asserts his dominance20th Century Fox

It is somewhat ironic then that what lets the film down is a finale too heavy on CG spectacle where previously the computer wizardry was saved for the apes and little of the world surrounding them. Everything else about the final act works well, with the various plot threads coming together nicely. However in rooting the CG apes in real world environments and enormous sets for most of the film, then putting them in CG surroundings suddenly makes everything look a cheaper.

The standout action scene comes halfway through. Without detailing it, the scene excellently conveys the chaotic horror of a violent battle with a visual pang and one particularly wonderful sustained shot.

Matt Reeves takes on the franchise rebooted by Rupert Wyatt with consummate ease and the utmost confidence in motion capture as the legitimate acting tool it is. With Dawn he has crafted a unique, visually stunning and smart blockbuster in which the best characters are talking apes.

A bit ridiculous? Sure. Astounding? Absolutely.