By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 18, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Disney is no stranger to live-action family films and heartwarming pictures with animals at their center. With The One and Only Ivan, it's combined those two skill sets to tell an uplifting tale that feels plucked from the studio's 1960s heyday of B-movie family plots.

Based on a Newbery Medal-winning children’s book of the same name, The One and Only Ivan follows silverback gorilla Ivan (voiced by a gruffly tender Sam Rockwell), who lives in captivity at the Big Top Mall. Along with his other animal friends, including maternal elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), stray dog Bob (Danny DeVito), and preening poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), they perform for dwindling audiences alongside circus owner Mack (Bryan Cranston). When baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) gets introduced to the fold, the animals start to dream of a life beyond the circus.

Directed by Thea Sharrock and from a script by Mike White, the film wrestles with an uneven tone, struggling to find exactly what it wants to be. The circus seems a grim life for these animals from the start, but at the outset, these wisecracking creatures would seem more at home in a project like Dr. Doolittle than in a story about the plight of animals in captivity. It's only once tragedy forces the animals to consider the gloomy confines of their situation that they shake off the feeling that they wandered in from another movie.

The film’s attempts to blend family-friendly humor with the plight of the animals doesn’t land, and it’s hard to gauge exactly what it wants to say until its final third. This is furthered by the film's unclear setting, which seems to be somewhere in the early '90s, giving it a creaky out-of-time sensibility.

In some ways, it’s a blessing this project was moved to a Disney+ release. It’s an ideal family film for a lazy Friday night at home. And Cranston gives it his all as Mack, a man who possesses genuine affection for the animals, but ultimately still monetizes them for his own gain. The character is never quite calibrated correctly either — sometimes he's a villain pushing a baby elephant to exhaustion, other times a man who just really loves this gorilla he’s raised from a young age. It’s not Cranston’s fault so much as the script’s inability to decide who they want Mack to be.

Ivan was a real gorilla who lived in captivity at a mall for 27 years before being relocated to a massive enclosure at Zoo Atlanta. When the film engages with the reality of this, or his bond with Ruby and his other animal pals, it soars. It’s admirable that the project wants to paint Mack as a complex figure with a love of animals and Ivan as a creature who doesn’t even know he should ask for something better.

Watching Ivan discover his love of art is intoxicating, too, particularly when his realization that he can use it to communicate results in a truly breathtaking tableau. The film’s genuine bursts of emotion, combined with the wry warmth of the vocal performances and the deftly realistic rendering of the CGI animals, give the project a silverback gorilla-sized heaping of heart. It just needs some help getting through the weeds of everything else that’s been laid in its path in an attempt to ham things up for the kids, rather than letting the purity of its earnest message shine. B

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