A technical marvel with enormous heart, Thea Sharrock's adaptation of Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan is making its debut on Disney Plus, the Mouse House's streaming juggernaut that will make their big-budget feature Mulan available to subscribers for a mere $30 on Sept. 4. Ivan is free to those who've already ponied up the requisite $6.99 for the channel, and I have a feeling it's a much better deal. Initially set for theatrical release, Sharrock's film is being unceremoniously cast on the airwaves with little fanfare. Had Disney required a few extra bucks to see it, I think they'd find the response to it much better than what they'll get for their latest live action remake. But what do I know?
Applegate's tale is tailor-made for Disney, what with its charming animal characters, more than one of whom endure trauma where their parents are concerned, and heartwarming message. It shamelessly tugs at your heartstrings, and while you know you're being manipulated, there's no way to distance yourself from its machinations. Tears will fall, and there's no shame in it.
Ivan (voice by Sam Rockwell) is a silverback gorilla who's the star of a modest circus housed at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall. His owner, Mack (Bryan Cranston), does his best to keep his odd menagerie of animals and profit margins healthy but has run into some trouble on both fronts lately. With nothing new having been added to his show for years, audiences have grown tired of it. To help boost attendance, he purchases a baby elephant, Ruby (Brooklyn Prince), who charms everyone she meets. Stella (Angelina Jolie), an elder pachyderm, takes the newcomer under her wing and shows her the ropes. However, she soon falls ill and, knowing her time is soon, gets Ivan to promise her that he will make sure Ruby does not grow up in the mall but is allowed to spend her life in the wild.
How Ivan goes about achieving this seemingly impossible task is the crux of the movie, one that sometimes gets pushed to the background so the film's various animals can cavort and charm us. Chief among them is Bob (Danny DeVito), a stray dog that's adopted Ivan, developing a penchant for sleeping on his soft, furry belly.
The veteran actor is a stand-out in the strong cast, each of the voice actors effectively humanizing the computer-generated constructs they've been assigned. The special effects work is truly astounding, the movement of the creatures fluid and smooth, their facial expressions designed to convey the most subtle emotions, engineered to tug at your heart. To be sure, it is a mechanical exercise, but Sharrock never lays the sentiment on too thick, trusting in the power of the story to move us.
Very loosely inspired by a true story, Applegate's story is a plaintive cry for the fair and humane treatment of all creatures, whether they be of the two- or four-legged variety. The way we treat the animals that surround us reflects how we treat one another and the world around us. It's a simple message, but one we forget all too often, to our peril. The One and Only Ivan may follow the tried-and-true Disney formula, but Sharrock and the veteran cast bring just enough heart to it to make it seem fresh and vital.