The reception toward Disney’s “live action” remake of The Lion King was hit-and-miss, with yours truly praising it for its photorealistic animals while also taking it to task for the jarring effect of them speaking and singing. Never one to rest on their laurels, Disney is back in the live action talking animals business again with The One and Only Ivan.
Based on the children’s book of the same name, the film centers on Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a silverback gorilla who has spent most of his life as the main attraction at a mall circus run by Mack (Bryan Cranston). Ivan takes pride in his role in the show, which also features Stella the elephant (Angelina Jolie) and a smattering of other animals.
The animals, which also include a stray dog named Bob (Danny DeVito), have a true friend in Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of George (Ramon Rodriguez), Mack’s assistant. Save for Stella, none of them seem to know or want a better life until Mack decides to bring in a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) to try to draw bigger crowds. This decision inadvertently sets in motion a series of events that will change the future of every animal and person involved with circus.
Directed by Thea Sharrock and written by Mike White, the film walks the fine line between being an entertaining movie for kids and telling its lightly upsetting story. Even though Mack is portrayed as a relatively kind man who cares for the animals in his charge, it’s clear that it’s his well-being that is most important to him. The filmmakers show a variety of cute and fun moments, but make sure to balance it out by intimating or outright saying that none of the animals deserve to be cooped up in such a restrictive environment.
Putting animated characters in close proximity with actual humans is tricky, but the visual effects team does a wonderful job of creating a believable environment. None of the animals comes off as cartoonish or even slightly unrealistic, so it’s clear that the animators did tons of research and work to get them just right. And it seems they learned a lesson from The Lion King, as the effect of the animals talking is never distracting.
Though the film is firmly on the side of the animals, it doesn’t dig too deep into the ethics of caging wild creatures. The story has the animals pining about a life of freedom, yet their dreams are about moving to a zoo, which is just a tiny step above their current situation. No actual animals were used in the film, but some, especially animal rights activists, may still be crying foul.
As is almost always the case with voiceover work, few of the big-name actors make a difference in how the characters are perceived. Rockwell is a smooth performer and he’s fine as Ivan, but the visuals do most of the work for him and the other characters. Cranston can make almost anything work, and Greenblatt is the heart of the film thanks to her enthusiastic and warm interactions with the animals.
The One and Only Ivan is a Disney movie through-and-through, for better or worse. It has plenty of moments for both kids and adults to enjoy, even if its take on the story is only skin deep.
The One and Only Ivan is available exclusively on Disney+ now.