Movie Review: Disney goes for tears with “The One and Only Ivan”

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Disney turns its digital animators loose on a serious subject and a “true story,” albeit one in which the animals talk, with “The One and Only Ivan.”

It’s about animals, and a silverback gorilla with the title role, living in a failing mall that’s been repurposed as a circus/zoo. There’s pathos built in via our natural response that wild animals would rather be free and in the wild. The meandering, maudlin and almost joyless story has the animals, Ivan in particular, slow to realize it themselves.

Big Top Mall used to be a hopping place, revitalized by the circus that struggling entrepreneur and Master of Ceremonies Mack (Bryan Cranston) opened up to lure in kids.

Ivan, a gorilla he raised from an orphaned cub, is his star attraction. Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) and his pal, the elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie) can remember “when this place was packed with people.” The mellow, downbeat gorilla resolves to step up his scary gorilla act, even though he learned growing up in the jungle that “anger is precious. Only use it to restore order, or warn others of danger.”

His other confidante is a stray mutt hiding out in his enclosure, a dog voiced by Danny DeVito. Hearing Mack chase the dog with “The last thing we need is another MOUTH to feed,” is a further warning. This circus, like every circus depicted in the movies these days, is struggling.

Might a new baby elephant (Brooklynn Prince of “The Florida Project”) save the circus? Her arrival alters the reluctant to anger/reluctant to act Ivan’s focus. She wonders, “Will we ever be free?” Ivan can’t let her grow up in this sort of captivity.

Stella’s sage advice, “Not all humans are bad. They can surprise you” will be put to the test as Ivan tries to plot an escape.

“Ivan” plays like Disney taking another crack at “Dumbo,” hoping to shove a little more “Madagascar” in their sentimental critter-weeper efforts this time. But was Mike White, whose lightest script was “School of Rock,” the right person to turn this account of a menagerie in the Pacific Northwest that was protested and eventually “freed” from their mall into light entertainment for kids?

Love Mike White (he has a cameo, as a driver surprised by critters). But the answer to that rhetorical question is most certainly “No.”

There are plenty of red herrings, little bits of misdirection in it. Will they effect a “Madagascar” escape? Will Ivan’s cubhood love of “drawing” get their message across to humans, a la “Happy Feet?”

White is hemmed in by the parameters of the “true” story.

The movie steers clear of showing “Humans are bad.” Mack seems like a decent guy, caring but WAY out of step with the times. So there’s no villain to be overcome, no foil/obstacle for Ivan and the elephant, the fire-truck-driving rabbit, football-playing chicken (Chaka Khan) et al to overcome.

You wonder if there was fear of litigation from any of the real humans involved in this true story, or any of the other humans who ran or run such menageries. Florida, for instance, has had its share. And Disney runs a theme park with displaced African animals as a featured attraction.

Rendered toothless, with barely a hint of menace or humor, much less jokes or sight gags, “Ivan” plays as downbeat and dispirited.

It was going to be hard to tell this story, preserve its “Animals don’t belong in cages, children” message and bring entertainment value into that within the strictures of the “true story.”

But the writing, and Rockwell’s introverted, glum vocal performance sets the tone. Casting three Oscar winners as voices (Rockwell, Jolie and Helen Mirren, playing a trained poodle) didn’t do the picture any favors.

Yes, digitally recreating convincing animals is now a Disney Animation specialty. But without the warmth and wit of a good script for them to “act” in, “life like” isn’t enough.

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Cast: Bryan Cranston, the voices of Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Chaka Khan, Danny DeVito

Credits: Directed by  Thea Sharrock, script by Mike White, based on the non-fiction book by Katherine Applegate. A Disney+ release.

Running time: 1:34

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