Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows the life of Caesar (played through motion capture by the method's king, Andy Serkis) from an innocent baby chimp to the primates' version of Moses. Caesar is no ordinary chimp form the beginning. His mother was a test subject for a new virus that is supposed to attack Alzheimer's disease. The virus works in chimps as it gives them increased intelligence and Caesar's mother passes this intelligence onto Caesar. However, this is not the only reason Caesar is not your average chimp. Caesar, like all of the primates in this film, are performed by actors through the process of motion capture (CGI that is guided by the actors instead of created artificially). Andy Serkis (famous for playing for Gollum/Smeagol and Kong) makes Caesar the star of this film. Serkis does the seemingly impossible task of getting all of the subtitles of how a chimp would move and makes it look easy. Serkis takes a non-human character and goes through a stark character arc while making every moment of the performance believable. This is truly a tour-de-force performance. Much credit has to also go to the visual effects people at Weta who have now gotten one step closer to 100% photorealism (Yes, the CGI apes in this film are more realistic than the Navi in Avatar).
A lot of credit also has to go to director Rupert Wyatt who combines so many elements that are difficult to pull off into a cohesive film. For instance, parts of this film play like a silent film, others play like a morality play and others play like a full-on action film. Wyatt (as well as screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa) have to also be given a lot of praise for creating a film that is well aware of its history (nods to Taylor's spaceship Icarus and Cornelia, the main female ape in the original series, are present) but is completely standalone. New viewers would enjoy this film as much as people well-rounded in Planet of the Apes lore. This is never more apparent than in the "damned dirty ape" scene which is masterfully directed by Wyatt.
The rest of the cast is nothing special. I wish Franco was more well written or played with more pathos as his character could have easily been turned into a Frankenstein-like character (He actually is but you couldn't tell by the performance). John Lithgow is good as an ailing father. I just wish a little more time was spent with him. Freida Pinto is just there to spout warnings at Franco's character. Brian Cox, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo play good villains, but you won't remember them for long. You could definitely say that the live-action cast is not good but this is definitely an ape's film.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is surprisingly a great film. Even more surprising is that this is a great prequel in that it totally throws your expectations out the door.