A sweet if sleepy adaptation of Katherine Applegate's 2012 children's book, Disney's "The One and Only Ivan" is a talking-animal film that takes the lives of its characters a lot more seriously than, say, "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."
Directed by Thea Sharrock ("Me Before You") and scripted with characteristic sensitivity by Mike White ("School of Rock," "Enlightened"), the film initially seems like the expected stuff of snarky CGI animals. Ivan (Sam Rockwell) is a 400-pound silverback gorilla who lives in the corner of the Big Top Mall, a shopping center with a struggling circus act on the side. (Given that multiplexes have long similarly abutted malls, "The One and Only Ivan" — on Disney+— could serve as an unwitting metaphor for a fading brick-and-mortar reality for movie theaters.)
Their owner is Mack (Bryan Cranston), an increasing desperate small-business owner — more carnival barker than zoologist — whose show isn't drawing like it used to. Ivan is his star act; he finishes off each performance with a loud roar and some chest thumping. Mack decides he needs a new headliner and procures a cute baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), who's parented by the circus' veteran pachyderm, Stella (Angelina Jolie, also a producer).
"The One and Only Ivan" seems at first fully invested in whether Mack can turn his show around. But it pivots to sink deeper into the interior lives of the animals in his care. Their caged homes don't seem oppressive; a mangy stray dog named Bob (Danny DeVito) keeps Ivan company. But Sharrock bathes their restricting confines in claustrophobic shadow. The outside world feels far away. Taking up painting, Ivan colors a dreamed-up forest.
Mack is far from Joe Exotic but we start to question whether Big Top Mall is a good home for Ivan and the rest. The movie, like the book, is inspired by the real story of a gorilla named Ivan who was captured as a baby in the Congo, raised by a family in the U.S., and sat on display in a small concrete cell at a Tacoma, Wash., shopping mall for 27 years before an outcry (prompted in part by a National Geographic documentary ) won his release to a zoo.
The real story of Ivan is more interesting even if it's probably too dispiriting and shameful for a Disney movie. At the same time there's some awkwardness in relating such an animal-rights tale with fart jokes and a celebrity voice ensemble (among the cast is Helen Mirren as the poodle Snickers and Chaka Khan as a chicken named Henrietta.)
But there's an uncommon mournfulness to "The One and Only Ivan" that tugs at the question of where can these animals go? They plot an escape to the woods across the street only to find it's a small green patch surrounded by development. Give "The One and Only Ivan" credit for trying to bridge "Dumbo" with "Blackfish."