“The One and Only Ivan,” the new talking animal movie debuting on Disney+, is based on the bestselling children’s novel of the same name written by K. A. Applegate, which was inspired by the life of Ivan, a real-life silver-back gorilla who lived, as an attraction, at shopping center in Tacoma, Washington, for 27 years.
Set in 1973, the movie begins with Ivan (voice of Sam Rockwell) as the star attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, run by Mack (Bryan Cranston), who does double duty as the big top ringleader. When Ivan isn’t locked away in a cage he’s performing to increasingly sparse crowds alongside an aging elephant named Stella (Angelina Jolie) or hanging out with his closest pal, a wisecracking stray dog named Bob (Danny DeVito). Most of the animals have no recollection of how they got there; this is the only life they have ever known.
When an abused baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) joins the circus, Stella looks after her and makes Ivan to take care of Ruby if she cannot. With the help of Ruby and Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of the mall custodian, Ivan begins to look past his cage to rediscover his past and move Ruby and his other animal friends to the safety of a zoo.
“The One and Only Ivan” features solid CGI—the fur and feathers, so often a problem in films like this, look real—and good voicework from the star-studded cast— Helen Mirren, Ramón Rodriguez, “The Walking Dead’s” Eleanor Matsuura, Chaka Khan, “Hamilton” star Phillipa Soo and “Enlightened” creator Mike White—but it is the film’s messages that earn it a recommend.
The gently paced drama contains life lessons about leadership, treating all living creatures with kinship, love and respect and the value of promises. Best of all, it preaches and practices empathy for humans and animals. These are potent messages that all add up to the story’s main theme, that we can all make a difference in our lives and the lives of others.
“The Only and Only Ivan” softens the character of Mack, dialing down the wrong doing he displays in the book. It leaves the film with a villain-sized hole but Cranston is, nonetheless, an engaging performer, even if it would have been fun to see a little more Walter White in his portrayal of Mack.
The movie may not be appropriate for all ages. The animals in captivity and other realities of life at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade are probably best suited for children in the middle grades and up.