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Look zoo’s talking – ‘The One and Only Ivan’

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Full disclosure: I dig talking animal movies. Always have. Do I recognize that these movies are often not good? Reader, I do. And I don’t care. Give me animals relating their thoughts and I will almost certainly watch.

“The One and Only Ivan,” the new film currently streaming on Disney+, is actually one of the better examples of the genre I’ve seen recently. The field has largely been crowded with dogs feeling feelings (a subgenre I particularly dig), so it was nice to watch a different animal having feelings – namely the titular Ivan, a silverback gorilla.

Based on the 2013 children’s novel of the same name, this story is a charming and occasionally dark story of a small-time animal circus based in a mall. It’s a story about the value of friendship, the importance of self-expression and what it means to be free. It’s also a bunch of CGI animals talking to each other (though not to the humans) and engaging in friendly banter while coming to terms with what it is that they really want – and what they might be willing to do to get it.

Ivan (Sam Rockwell, “Jojo Rabbit”) is a silverback gorilla. For many years, he has been the star attraction at the Big Top Mall. The show is run by ringmaster Mack (Bryan Cranston, “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie”) – with the help of all-around assistant George (Ramon Rodriguez, TV’s “The Affair”) and George’s daughter Julia (Ariana Greenblatt, “Scoob!”) – and has been a local mainstay for decades.

Ivan’s not alone, though. There’s the wise old elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie, “Come Away”) and the pretentious poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren, “The Good Liar”). There’s chattering parrot Thelma (Phillipa Soo, “Hamilton”) and neurotic sea lion Frankie (Mike White, “Brad’s Status”). We’ve got a baseball-playing chicken named Henrietta (music legend Chaka Khan) and a fire-truck driving rabbit named Murphy (Ron Funches, “Trolls World Tour”). Also in the mix is Bob (Danny DeVito, “Jumanji: The Next Level”), a stray dog who has been sneaking into the enclosure and is now Ivan’s best friend.

Ivan is the headliner, trotted out at the end of every show to roar and beat his chest and generally look ferocious. It’s all an act, though – he’s actually thoughtful and sensitive. His ego takes a hit, however, when a new attraction turns up, an adorable baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince, “The Turning”). Ruby’s popularity leaves Ivan struggling with some existential issues, issues that are only exacerbated when Ruby comes to be his responsibility.

On the other hand, he discovers some latent artistic talent when Julia gives him some crayons and paper – Ivan begins to teach himself to draw, an act that stirs up some long-buried feelings. Even as the show begins to regain popularity, Ivan finds himself wondering: is this all there is? Or is there something more out there, something closer to his vague memories of his time in the wild? And can he find a way to lead all of his friends to that imagined promised land?

As far as talking animal movies go, “The One and Only Ivan” is pretty good. The storytelling is solid and the characters are engaging. The CGI animals are well-executed – always a must for this sort of movie to really land – and the performances (vocal and live-action) are consistent.

Thematically, it’s a little tricky. The whole notion of performing animals – particularly in a mall – is ethically murky. Wild creatures caged and trained to entertain is iffy under the best of circumstances, but once you make these animals sapient, with an awareness and understanding of both where they are and where they could be, well … there are some concerns. For better or worse, the movie glosses over the darker aspects of its story, mostly focusing instead on the bright side.

“The One and Only Ivan” spreads itself pretty thin, trying to explore a lot of themes in a relatively brief amount of time. But while the idea of a self-aware gorilla grappling with the realities and consequences of personal freedom is obviously rather heavy, the movie wisely finds plenty of moments to lean into the goofball slapstick of it all. There are far more laughs than tears here (although it’s a Disney movie, so you know – there WILL be tears).

The stacked cast certainly doesn’t hurt. I can’t necessarily fully articulate why, but Sam Rockwell seems like the ideal choice to play a sensitive gorilla with an artistic soul. He endows Ivan with real pathos; no easy feat. He carries the day, but he has some help. DeVito is a delight – his unique voice makes him a consistent hit in these sorts of roles. Prince manages to SOUND adorable, which is tough to do. Mirren has some strong scenes. White (who also wrote the screenplay) and Khan and Funches and Soo and Jolie all have their moments.

On the human side, Cranston is his usual excellent self. He has a knack for finding the reality beneath the ridiculousness, a talent that serves him well here. And Greenblatt proves to be just the right amount of precocious, cute without being cloying. The rest of the live-action cast is fine, but largely inconsequential – they hit their marks and say their lines and do their part to advance the story, but there’s nothing flashy.

“The One and Only Ivan” tries to do a lot – probably too much, really. However, it is so sincere in its efforts that it works. It is cute and sentimental and utterly unapologetic about any of it. Will it feel a little too saccharine for older viewers? Maybe (unless they share my baseline affinity for talking animals). But here’s the thing – it isn’t for them. And the target audience of kiddos might well fall in love with Ivan and his pals.

What kind of movie does a 400-pound gorilla make? Whatever kind he wants.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 23 August 2020 14:39

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