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Far fairer than Artemis Fowl, the poorly received, previous live-action/CGI hybrid to be rerouted from theaters to Disney+, The One and Only Ivan is a notably muted, soulful portrait of a silverback gorilla who reevaluates his seemingly contented life as a mall circus performer.
Based on the Newbery Medal-winning 2013 novel by Katherine Applegate, which in turn took its inspiration from real-life events, the production offers a stirring take on themes of belonging and advocacy; understated voicework from Sam Rockwell in the title role; and intimate cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (a far cry from the sort of anthropomorphic animation on recent display in the likes of Dr. Dolittle and Dumbo).
RELEASE DATE Aug 21, 2020
While the result isn’t exactly the stuff of broad, rousing summer escapism, those animals in captivity certainly capture the ongoing lockdown zeitgeist, making for a fitting home-viewing shift from the film’s intended Aug. 14 theatrical release.
Like the circus show itself, the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade off Exit 8 can’t help but feel like a fading anachronism with its dwindling audiences and struggling ringmaster/proprietor, Mack (Bryan Cranston), who faces each new day fending off a creeping, sweaty resignation.
Meanwhile, his mighty 400-pound star attraction has settled into a steady (by his own count, 9,855-day) routine, even as he begins wondering if he’s lost his chest-pounding edge (“Why do they want an angry gorilla anyway?”). He spends his off-hours hanging out with the aging Stella (Angelina Jolie), a soft-spoken maternal elephant literally on her last legs, and Bob (Danny DeVito), a scrappy and loyal mutt.
But the arrival of Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), a cute baby elephant whom Mack is depending on to turn things around, forces Ivan to confront his long-repressed past and for the first time address a potential future while keeping a promise to Stella regarding Ruby’s well-being.
There’s a palpable melancholy running throughout, not to mention a poignant thread of Charlotte’s Web woven into both the Applegate book and the adapted screenplay by Mike White (who also voices Frankie the seal and pops up in a brief cameo). The film never spills over into pathos thanks to the measured direction of Thea Sharrock (2016 romantic drama Me Before You) and the thoughtful performances.
The ever-resilient Rockwell brings something fresh-feeling to a philosophical character, one who discovers a surprising aptitude for drawing when he’s given broken crayons by the daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) of Mack’s production assistant (Ramón Rodríguez).
Jolie, who also serves as producer along with Brigham Taylor and the late Allison Shearmur, invests her fragile pachyderm with a gentle, world-weary wisdom, while Cranston makes you feel his world crumbling beneath him in a performance that could have easily flirted with cartoon villainy in less accomplished hands.
Charged with lightening the mood are a lively supporting menagerie, among them DeVito’s junkyard dog, a strutting chicken (Chaka Khan) and Mack’s pampered poodle (Helen Mirren in a pitch-perfect if underutilized turn).
Underscoring the introspective atmosphere are composer Craig Armstrong’s subdued musical themes and the end-credits Diane Warren contribution, “Free,” performed by Charlie Puth.
Given the obvious care that went into all aspects of the production, including the highly expressive CGI touches, The One and Only Ivan almost doesn’t need the justification of there having been an actual mall-residing, picture-painting Ivan (brought to attention in a National Geographic special called “The Urban Gorilla”), whose life would encompass an unanticipated third act.
As the sage Stella reminds her fellow mammals, “Not all humans are bad — they can surprise you.”
So, too, can talking animal movies.
Production companies: Walt Disney Studios, Allison Shearmur Prods., Jolie Pas Prods.
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Brooklyn Prince, Ramón Rodríguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Chaka Khan, Mike White, Ron Funches, Phillipa Soo, Bryan Cranston
Director: Thea Sharrock
Screenwriter: Mike White
Producers: Allison Shearmur, Angelina Jolie, Brigham Taylor
Executive producers: Sue Baden-Powell, Thea Sharrock
Cinematography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Molly Hughes
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Editor: Barney Pilling
Composer: Craig Armstrong
Casting director: Randi Hiller
Rated PG, 83 minutes
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