One of the movies I missed in 2020.

The one and only Ivan who gives Disney's pandemic-stricken direct-to-streaming refugee The One and Only Ivan its title is a very subdued gorilla played by a CGI effect and voiced by Sam Rockwell, and he spends mot of the the movie doing almost nothing other than just kind of hanging out, being quiet, and looking at the world with the heavy-lidded gaze of somebody who's almost never not stoned, though this being a Disney movie, there's not so much as the slightest whisper of innuendo that this is actually the case. Presumably, he's just old and tired and bored to live in a barren concrete hell. God knows if I were forced to live in a movie like The One and Only Ivan, I'd be bored. Anyway, he seems to be fine just getting by with the bare minimum of effort possible, and yet frequently throughout the movie, some other CGI animal will enthusiastically sing his praises by saying some variation of "you can do it! You're the one and only Ivan!" I wasn't counting, but I think this happens approximately 400 times.

The film is based upon the 2013 Newbery Medal-winning children's book by Katherine Applegate that was in turn based on the true story of a gorilla who lived for 27 in a sort of low-rent zoo at a shopping mall in Tacoma, WA, before he became a cause célèbre for animal activists in the 1990s. The One and Only Ivan ups the absurdity of this real-world situation a bit by making it not just a zoo, but a full-on circus just hanging out right there in the middle of a shopping mall, and the crisis that jump-starts the movie is that circus-owner Mack (Bryan Cranston) is starting to grow concerned that he's not making enough money to keep the show going. Yeah, no shit. Free-ass circus in a damn mall, you're losing money. But Mack's suspicion is that this is not because of his insane business model, but because his current menagerie isn't up to par: Henrietta (Chaka Khan), a brash baseball-playing chicken; Frankie (Mike White, who also wrote the screenplay), a neurotic seal who balances a ball; Stella (Angelina Jolie, who has like maybe a dozen lines), an aging elephant who just, like, stands; Murphy (Ron Funches), a rabbit in a bow tie who drives a small fire truck and shoots brightly-colored liquid at the children in the audience, which I'm sure makes their parents happy; and Ivan himself, who also just, like, stands. Sometimes he pounds his chest.

This is still enough to make Ivan the undisputed star of the show, but Mack has dreams of something bigger. So one day, he buys a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), and whether this rejuvenates the mall or not, it's hard to say. What for sure happens is that Ruby's incessant childlike curiosity starts to finally push the taciturn Ivan to share stories about his life that he has up to now kept buried in his subconscious, not even sharing them with his best friend, the mongrel dog Bob (Danny DeVito). And this stories make it very clear that, for all his sleepy comfort in the familiarity of the horrible mall circus, he misses the hell out of the jungle where he was born. And since he has just lately been teaching himself to paint, with the encouragement of Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of a mall janitor, he even has an artistic medium with which to express this desire.

All perfectly functional, to be sure, and I would hate to be accused of misrepresenting The One and Only Ivan as less than functional. Its chief problem is that it's inordinately boring. It's very obvious that the film's target audience is kids who are desperately in love with animals and especially with animals who can say people words, and I suppose for them, this is all the things that were promised. The issue is that, for an enormous quantity of its 95-minute running time, the film is basically nothing else but watching animals talk. And other than DeVito, I can't say that any of them are talking with sufficient energy that it's terribly interesting to hear what they have to say. I am willing to concede that point that the movie's Ivan, like the real Ivan, is presumably being sapped of all his vitality by being trapped in a tiny little box in a grey little room, and so his dropping, laconic presence and bearing are "the point", but this is only so much of a comfort when you're staring into his drowsy eyes and listening to Rockwell yawn his way through line deliveries (I do not blame Rockwell for this performance). For that matter, staring into his drowsy eyes is hardly any comfort at all: the film's Oscar-nominated visual effects are extremely impressive, in that these photorealistic animals all look terrifically real, with weight and volume as they interact with the rooms in which the film takes place, and they are extremely horrifying, in that most of these are not animals that should have the kind of expressive human facial features they get here. Ivan is the worst, I assume that because, as a gorilla, he's already a healthy part of the way down into the Uncanny Valley; it made me profoundly unhappy to look at him, and that's pretty unfortunate for the protagonist and emotional core of the movie. Not that the film's characterisation of him does much to stir the emotions.

So anyways, back we go: it's a sedate, drab movie, dominated by low-lighting and a shambling, unhurried attitude towards its plot and comedy that sort of feel like the drowsier brand of children's movies from the 1970s (some of which were even made by Disney itself). Director Thea Sharrock, a theatrical artist of great note whose tiny filmography is still waiting on anything interesting, does a satisfactory job of creating a bored, melancholy tone, but she's not nearly as good at sustaining it: the script is trying to tug at the heartstrings without getting tawdry in its sentimentality, and that's not working, so a really strong guiding hand was needed to keep it on the straight and true, and Sharrock mostly just rolls with whatever the individual scene is doing. And neither she nor White nor anybody is ready to deal with the onslaught of Craig Armstrong's barbaric score, which coats the whole movie in syrupy, family-friendly charm, making the circus backstage that Sharrock has taken some pains to make dull and lifeless twinkle like a magical fairlyland. So it's really the worst of both worlds: stultifying and stuffy, while also screeching in our ear about how delighful and sweet and fun it all is.

Just about the only anchor for any of this is Cranston, who is nominally the piece's villain - a very small and sad villain who is fully redeemed by the end, but the film does take an unambiguous "circuses are bad" stand, and he is the one keeping the animals all there. All of which makes him a bad candidate to be The One and Only Ivan's emotional center, but there he is anyways, a sweaty and angst-ridden take on late-middle-aged desperation, the constant realisation that he has used up everything he ever had and no amount of distant affection for his animals is going to make them or him happy, or to put him in a position where he'll make more than enough money to barely scrape by. It's the most melancholy note in a film that's always happier being downbeat than forcing its talking animals to be wacky comic figures, and certainly the truest. That it's also the farthest point of entry for the children in the audience is a pretty clear sign of just how much of a fizzle the film is, but I guess if there are children you know who can still tolerate the whole CGI animal routine, they could do worse. I mean, hey, it's not Dolittle.