‘The One and Only Ivan’ Film Review: Disney+ Movie Puts a ‘Tiger King’ Spin on ‘Dumbo’

Director Thea Sharrock’s adaptation of the children’s book isn’t afraid to explore the human exploitation of animals, which gives it an unexpected melancholy

Last Updated: August 21, 2020 @ 6:34 AM

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After programming like “Hamilton” and “The Mandalorian” has put the plus in Disney+, “The One and Only Ivan” arrives on Aug. 21 to bring the Disney.

Complete with talking animals, cute kids and, yes, missing parents, the movie set in Dumbo’s old stomping grounds (a circus) feels familiar and a bit old-fashioned, though it does find a different kind of tone as it goes along, evolving from cuteness to melancholy in a way that can take you by surprise.

But would it be a spoiler to say that melancholy is only a detour on the way to heart-warming? Probably not – even in a fantasy directed by a British theater director, Thea Sharrock, and based on K.A. Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winning novel based on a true story, Disney will be Disney. In this case, that means some gentle whimsy, a mostly-artful blend of live-action human characters and CG animal creations, a touch of jeopardy and an uplifting message that seems appropriate in this era of “Tiger King.”

Based on the real story of a gorilla who spent 27 years of his life in an indoor shopping center in Tacoma, Washington, “The One and Only Ivan” is set in the Big Top Mall, a decrepit shopping center by the highway that includes its very own circus full of performing animals. Bryan Cranston is Mack, the owner and ringmaster, perpetually putting on the best face (and hairpiece, and girdle) and hoping that somehow he can restore the operation to profitability.

His star is Ivan, a 400-pound silverback gorilla who, in the film’s central conceit, speaks in English to the audience and to all his fellow animals but not to Mack or the other humans. Ivan takes pride in his position as this desultory circus’ headliner, but he’s not quite sure why his only role seems to be to growl, roar and thump his chest on cue.

“If they want an angry gorilla, I can do that,” says Ivan, who is voiced by Sam Rockwell. “Why do they want an angry gorilla?”

Ivan’s pals include an aging elephant (Angelina Jolie), a stray dog (Danny DeVito), a neurotic seal (Mike White, who also wrote the screenplay), a fancy poodle (Helen Mirren), a baseball-playing chicken (Chaka Khan) and the new headliner, a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), whose arrival rocks Ivan’s world.

But this isn’t a “Toy Story”-style tale of an old favorite having to adjust to the arrival of a hot newcomer; instead, after a fairly sprightly opening section, it begins to explore the human exploitation of animals, and doesn’t shy away from the sadness that creeps into the lives of these creatures kept in the back of a shopping mall in order to sell tickets.

That sadness is perhaps not a tone that’ll be appreciated by younger viewers who came for the talking animals, but it’s one that gives the film more nuance than you might expect. And when Ivan is revealed to be a wonderful artist, the scene is played not for surprise or for laughs, but for poignancy and beauty.

It helps that the voice cast is spot-on, that the animals themselves – none real, all CG – are seamlessly rendered and that Cranston underplays a character who could be much broader, funnier and less affecting. Like Dee Rees’ recent Netflix action film “The Old Guard,” “The One and Only Ivan” is quieter than you expect, and because of that more touching.

Of course, it eventually sails right past melancholy and touching into cheesy and tear-jerking, but how could it not? And you don’t really begrudge its inevitable and reasonably successful attempt to pile on the sentiment – after all, even a Disney movie for the era of “Tiger King” and pandemic is still a Disney movie.